Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shelf Life: Reality Hunger by David Shields

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 1:15 PM


GENRE: Literary manifesto

THE PITCH: “An open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century,” reads a splash of pink type on the dust jacket.

REALITY: Shields draws from a vast range of sources — the postured authenticity of hip-hop, the ready made sculptures of Duchamp, the staged documentaries of Herzog — to argue that the separation of art and life has long been abolished in contemporary art. Reality Hunger calls for more literary works to embrace this shift and acknowledge the “utterly useless distinction” between fiction and non-fiction.

FIRST SENTENCE: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.”

FACTS: Reality Hunger is divided into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Those chapters are composed of short, numbered bursts of text, 618 in total.

TRUTH: David Shields is the author of Reality Hunger but he did not write the majority of those numbered sections.

APPENDIX: In the appendix, you find that (almost) every section corresponds to a source — William Gass, Zadie Smith, Robert Rauschenberg, John Mellencamp, Lee Perry, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain and Frederick Nietzsche among them. “Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little — for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim,” he writes in an admission halfway through the book. Acknowledging that he agreed to include the appendix to please Random House’s lawyers, he asks that the reader please cut these pages right back out of the book.

IMPORTANT REFERENCES: David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The prologue to Slaughterhouse Five. Everything by Lydia Davis. Tristam Shandy. Barry Hannah’s Boomerang. “The sound of one hand clapping.”

INFLUENCE: While reading this book, there is an urge to acknowledge that Jonathan Lethem’s collage essay on copyright law in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” already achieved a number of Reality Hunger’s arguments. It’s a foolish urge, though. Shield’s point is that people have said this before him, that his own argument echoes with the history of art before him.

FRACTURED CONTINUITY: Like a master collagist, Shields has created a fluid coherence in the fractured, disparate sources of his book. Without the appendix, one could read the first-person narration as journeying through a surreal, contemporary landscape — accepting an Oscar for Best Documentary, meeting King Tubby at a dance hall in Kingston, watching reality TV with the neighbors. For a book that argues so vehemently (and effectively) against John Gardner’s “vivid and continuous dream,” against the consoling dream-world, against the “exit door” of fiction, Reality Hunger still creates a literary experience that surprises with vivid and dream-like qualities.

TURNING IT UPSIDE-DOWN: It is hard to overstate what this book is saying. It wants a recognized division between facts and truth. Reality Hunger is almost wholly against plot. It argues not for a shift in direction, but for literary works to specifically invert fiction’s established goals: “Fiction: no ideas but in things. (Serious) essay (what I want): not the thing itself but ideas about the thing.” Reality Hunger should both terrify and thrill anyone who wants to write a story after it.

Reality Hunger by David Shields. Knopf. $24.95. 240 pp

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