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The Missing of the Somme

British novelist and journalist Geoff Dyer struggles to find something new to say about World War I.

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“My own reading of general histories of the war is characterized by a headlong impatience,” he writes. “There are parts of these histories I try hard to concentrate on but whose details I can never absorb: the network of treaties, the flurry of telegrams and diplomatic maneuvers that lead up to the actual outbreak of war. Consequently everything between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the lamps going out over Europe is a blur.”

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A “blur” can be a great subject for a book. Disaster need not strike when an author cops to an incomplete understanding of his or her subject. Norman Mailer didn’t really get Gary Gilmore, but "The Executioner’s Song" helped define new journalism. Denis Johnson’s "Tree of Smoke" ably conveys the madness of the Vietnam War by presenting it as impenetrable, pointless, inexplicable madness. Heck, even the movie "Adaptation" was about writer’s block. Perhaps part of Dyer’s problem is that "The Missing of the Somme" is almost two decades old – this Vintage edition is the first stateside publication of a book that appeared in the UK in 1994. As the author might put it, readers are queuing up to read a book that is already dead.

Still, Dyer should do better. His acclaimed "But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz" (1991) and his "Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It" (2003) were the happy result of this Britisher sticking his nose where it didn’t necessarily belong. But here the author proves unable or unwilling to master the Great War’s unfamiliar no-man’s land. Navel-gazing and occasionally incomprehensible, "The Missing of the Somme" disappears down a rabbit hole.

“At this moment I am the only person on earth experiencing these sensations, in this place,” Dyer writes of a trip to the memorial that gives "The Missing of the Somme" its name. “At the same time, overwhelming and compounding this feeling, is the certainty that my presence here changes nothing; everything would be exactly the same without me.”

Is there a better epitaph for bad writing?

Justin Moyer is a Monitor contributor.

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