Wednesday, July 14, 2010

David Shields tries to make it real... but compared to what? Plus: Lermontov!

David Shields

I think I've underlined more passages in my copy of David Shields’
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, $28.95) than any other book I own. This initially struck me as inherently impressive, until I noticed how many of these passages seemed familiar, those stray lines that echo Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, or W.G. Sebald, or the paragraph of dictums taken directly from another manifesto, that of the Dogme 95 movement. I make a habit of learning as little about a book before reading it as possible, so forgive me for being slow on the uptake. Though it’s no secret, I didn’t clue into the fact that not only does Shields include un-attributed quotations in Reality Hunger but that such quotes, sometimes altered by Shields, constitute the bulk of the book, which is about a lot of things—far too many things, in fact, to be a coherent manifesto—but is perhaps above all, or at its best, a defense of collage and appropriation as a fecund and arguably unavoidable MO for artists. (Shields’ sources are listed in the back of the book, though he urges us to rip those pages out and ignore their content in the spirit of… well, we’ll get to that. The problem with this isn’t that readers are such sticklers for copyright law but that we, you know, like to read, and might want to find out who wrote something especially juicy so as to follow our interests.)

Andy Kaufman: master of reality

Reality Hunger contains 618 texts, written or selected by Shields, designed to collectively argue our living in a period in which, to paraphrase Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech, quoted by Shields, we hunger for reality because our daily lives are so inundated with fiction, ie: politics, advertising, junk journalism. We crave art and entertainment that responds to and interacts with the real. We embrace whatever promises to deliver it: memoirs, sample-heavy hip-hop, YouTube karaoke, reality TV. Yet Shields assures us, quite rightly, that reality, or at least randomness, has been infiltrating the artifices of art for millennia—even the Bible is a work of assemblage. Something Shields doesn’t explain is how exactly one is supposed to find their dose of unfiltered reality through programs that are painstakingly designed works of wish fulfillment, soap opera by another name. Shields is anti-narrative, but reality TV appeals to viewers precisely because of its resilience of classical narrative. Despite his inclusion of a tired reexamination of the James Frey controversy and a For Dummies history of DJ culture, Shields is obviously a smart, immensely curious guy with an impeccable radar for cultural shifts, and Reality Hunger is a fun, oddly breezy, engrossing read. But while the argument being built here—an extension of Jonathan Lethem’s landmark essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence,’ published in Harper’s in 2007—is fascinating, it’s also a mess. Nearly everything intrigues, yet little holds up to close scrutiny.

Lil Wayne: keeping it real?

Manifestos require monsters to rally against, preferably ones long embedded in the establishment. Shields’ main monster, after copyright law, is the novel, and his criticisms of it yield this book’s most overpowering wafts of horseshit. He champions personal essayists over novelists because they “keep looking at their own lives from different angles.” Yet dozens of the authors whose work Shields upholds as helping to sate our reality hunger write books we still call novels—the list includes Proust, Joyce, and Beckett—while there’s surely no limit to the number of personal essays out there that are both crap literature and complete failures at critical self-examination. Uninterested in the fiction part of fiction, Shields wants to do away with reading “700 pages” of story—an exaggeration, since few contemporary novels are even half that length—and just get to the point already. But what
is the point of a novel, and can it be distilled without losing its resonance? What exactly is a novel anyway? What’s a memoir? And what the hell is “reality” supposed to be? Is there really more of it in The Bachelor than in Moby Dick? Is Lil Wayne more in touch with it than Gabriel García Márquez? For the record, Shields, directly or indirectly, asks similar questions. The mystery is how can he ask them and still arrive at some of the half-baked conclusions he posits. It doesn’t sound as provocative, but in many respects Reality Hunger is basically a fresh plea to continue applying rigour to the postmodern project, especially if we boil postmodernism down to staying alert to form and accident and a willingness to negotiate the fourth wall. This is no small achievement.

Lermontov: before moustache

Shields asks: “Is there a sense in which a writer’s vision gets more thoroughly and beautifully tested in a book of linked stories than it does in a collection of miscellaneous stories or in a novel? …I’m thinking of Lermontov’s
A Hero of Our Time, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” (You’ll note that two of Shields’ examples were called novels by their authors.) Anyway, I like this question very much and, having already read and enjoyed two of these titles I decided to read the third. I bought a dog-eared copy of A Hero of Our Time years ago, my knowledge of Lermontov limited to the facts surrounding his untimely death and references to him made by Solyony in Three Sisters. Plus, I liked his moustache.

Lermontov: with moustache

The hero in question is Pechorin, an officer and a pretty nasty piece of work: romantic, manipulative, charismatic, cynical, unable to empathize with others, exhausted by life’s disappointments: “One just goes on living out of curiosity, waiting for something new. It’s absurd and annoying.” How emblematic Pechorin is of mid-19th century Russian society I’m unsure, but regarding Shields’ question about linked stories,
A Hero of Our Time does seem to reach its heights of character development and social critique through the deployment of varied anecdotes and genres. We learn about Pechorin through stories told by a man who once knew him, by a fleeting encounter with a writer, by news of his fate, and by his (edited) journals, which describe a love affair, a duel, and, in the book’s chilling final chapter, an evening spent debating determinism and death with a man about to die. Once you’ve read this slim but rich novel it becomes impossible to imagine how this character in all his complexities could be conveyed without Lermontov’s pattern of hearsay, memory, and private rumination, of external and internal portraiture. So all credit to Shields for, however it might contradict his thesis, pointing out the links between literary works of 1992, 1979, and 1840, and for getting me to finally read a masterpiece that’s been sitting on my shelf since about 1994.

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