Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reality Hunger

I spent part of last week reading David Shields' provocative manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he develops a multi-threaded argument that goes something like this:

The novel as a literary form is outdated and inadequate to the task of accurately representing life in the 21st century. The whole idea of authorship and ownership of ideas is itself a relic, embedded in a set of assumptions about reality that may never have been true, and certainly are true no longer. We've been stripped of our certainties. Reality in the 21st century is cacaphonous, it's an ongoing collision of voices and points of view competing for our attention. If the characteristic postmodern genre in art is collage, and the characteristic genre in music is pastiche (as in the layer and sampling in much hip-hop music), the characteristic genre in literature is the essay, but stripped of its pretensions artfulness and egocentricity. The form of the essay he envisions is exploratory and discontinuous and multilayered and, well, a whole lot like Reality Hunger.

The book is divided up, semi-arbitrarily into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. (I say "semi-" because each chapter is in fact a purposeful, if loose, sequence connected to a theme suggested by the chapter subtitle.) Across these 26 chapters are divided, semi-arbitrarily, 618 sequentially numbered prose passages, the majority of which were borrowed or stolen or cribbed or bent or concatenated by David Shields from other sources. I read somewhere that it was originally his intention to present these passages without attribution, which would certainly be consistent with his overall argument, but that his publisher insisted on the footnoted references which appear in the back of the text. The sources themselves serve as a sort of intellectual credentialing: he's read and absorbed and is now recycling Thoreau, Barthes, Walter Benjamin, William Gass, Jonathan Rabin, Robbe-Grillet, Simic, Ozick, Geoff Dyer, and W.G. Sebald - and that's just a random sampling from the first page of nine pages of footnotes. I often found myself flipping back and forth as I read, to see if what I was reading was coming from Shields or from someone else. The cumulative effect was to get to know the inside of Shields' head, including the stuff bouncing around in it, in a way that would not have been possible, or would at least not have been similar, if he had simply trotted out his ideas as a single, coherently shaped (and therefore inherently artificial and un-realistic) argument. Which is, I take it, his point. Or one of them.

One idea that Shields returns to often is that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are much fuzzier than most of us are accustomed to believe they are, as in this passage (#106) attributed to Vivian Gornick:

Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It's a misunderstanding to read memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably a writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.

It all makes for a fascinating but somewhat uneven read. It's not unlike a musical jam session. There a whole sequences when he will get going with a sequence of riffs that build upon and play off each other and it's like great jazz, surprising and heady and exhilarating. And there are other sequences which become too loosely connected or too random or which lead too far afield. Or maybe it's just listener/reader fatigue setting in, the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much information and too many ideas and closing down.  Again, like life.

I found myself in agreement with maybe 30 percent of what he had to say, in strong disagreement with another 30 percent, and there's another 40 percent that just slipped through the cracks in my brain. I am not convinced, for example, that fiction itself is doomed as a major literary form, or that plot, as a literary device, is itself necessarily boring. James Wood has an interesting New Yorker review in which, having established Shields' argument and methodology, he then uses Shields' critique of the artificiality of fiction as a framework within which to consider The Surrendered, the new novel by Chang-rae Lee. I think he sums up my own reaction well when he says

His complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well-taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas. But the other half of his manifesto, his unexamined promotion of what he insists on calling “reality” over fiction, is highly problematic.

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