Want to write a book about the Great War? First, read Ernest Hemingway’s "A Farewell to Arms." Then, check out Paul Fussell’s "The Great War and Modern Memory." Next, consult Erich Remarque’s "All Quiet on the Western Front" and, while you’re at it, put the 1930 film version – an Oscar-winning masterpiece – in your Netflix queue. Then, ask yourself: Do I really want to write a book about the Great War?
“War may be horrible, but that should not distract us from the acknowledging what a horrible cliché this has become,” Geoff Dyer writes in The Missing of the Somme, a minor meditation on World War I that never manages to be as major as the works on whose shoulders it stands. “The phrase ‘horror of war’ has become so automatic a conjunction that it conveys none of the horror it is meant to express.”
Dyer’s put himself in quite a bind. Almost a century after the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist sparked an interminable conflict that killed millions, "The Missing of the Somme" tries to say something new about the Great War while acknowledging that there may be nothing new to say. Halfheartedly trying to dodge this paralyzing paradox, Dyer offers a miniature family history – his grandfather served as a driver at the Somme, the 1916 battle in Northern France often called the bloodiest in human history – that segues awkwardly into a drunken tour of WWI memorials. In the end, the author forsakes memoir, travelogue, and art history to settle on a less promising method: critical theory.
“The young men queuing up to enlist in 1914 have the look of ghosts,” Dyer writes. “They are queuing up to be slaughtered: they are already dead…. [T]he Great War urges us to write the opposite of history: the story of effects generating their cause.”
One must ask: Is this bunk? If not, what does it mean? While cranky academics are too quick to dismiss experimental, edgy critical theorists like Jean Baudrillard – whose 1991 essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” playfully dissects how Westerners think about wars they watch on television – you don’t have to be reactionary to call Dyer’s postmodern bluff. For a book that tries to add value to libraries filled with worthy writing about World War I, "The Missing of the Somme"’s diaphanous swipes at lyricism seem immaterial. Even worse, Dyer admits as much.
“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.”
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.