February 2010

David Griffith

nonfiction

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields

In the opener of David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto -- a collage of unattributed quotes by luminous thinkers and writers about our obsession with “the real” in art, literature and culture -- Shields asks us to read his book without peeking at the endnotes where the origin of each quote is revealed. As other reviewers have already noted, it’s difficult to resist.  

“Who said that?” I thought over and over, until I finally gave in, reading the whole book with my index finger tucked in the back to mark my place in the endnotes. In this regard, and many others, Reality Hunger is a frustrating yet transformative experience. This is not a screed against the Aristotelian principles of dramatic storytelling (unity of plot, place and time); he creates a disorienting and energizing environment for the reader to walk into, a gallery full of sexy and provocative quotes where you feel compelled, and are encouraged, to voice your approval or disapproval on the walls. 

Indeed, only twenty pages in, the margins of the book overflowed with penciled notes (stars, check marks, question marks and exclamation points), but the geeky game of guessing who said what began to wear thin, and I started to pine for those Aristotelian unities. I wanted characters, I wanted setting and scenes, and I wanted conflict. I wanted Shields to get to the point already, especially after suffering through a chapter on hip-hop in which we are reminded that DJs have been quoting one another, without attribution, for some time. I grew up listening to Public Enemy, the Art of Noise and jazz (that art form where quoting with a difference is not just ethical but expected), but, despite these experiences, I'm not buying the defense that artists caught plagiarizing are like DJs who sample the tracks of others. (Recently, a 17-year-old German novelist deflected allegations of wholesale plagiarism by saying that she is part of a new generation that believes "[t]here's no such thing as originality, just authenticity.") 

So, hacked off, and thinking of the review I was charged to write, I searched for more reasons not to like this coy book. The first I came up with was that this isn't much of a manifesto. I like manifestos. I like the audacity of someone, or a group, standing up and telling it like they see it -- We will no longer stand for this! -- regaling us with reasons why our current ways are bankrupt. I like how irrational manifestos are. Dada, for example, is the sound a baby makes. It’s not some sort of transcendental mantra. Dada is a celebration of infancy, the noble savagery of making up words and games and then, like children engrossed in their imagined world, getting exasperated when the adults don’t know what the words mean, or don’t understand the rules of the game. To me, good manifestos toe this line between moral indignation and gibberish. I need to feel that the whole thing could fly apart at any moment, but doesn’t. 

Reality Hunger doesn’t feel that way. The chapters are alphabetical rather than numerical, each dwelling on a theme (“reality,” “memory,” “collage”), and each quote is numbered (1-617). And unlike the manifestos of the Dadaists, Futurists and Vorticists, there is no provocative graphic design element -- just page after page of numbered sections all in the same font, giving the feel that Shields is smugly enumerating evidence for his case: “You know that you know this is true, so quit denying it. Embrace it!”  

And as far as manifestos go, it’s not really that audacious or irrational. Most of the quotes espouse theories and views that are well-documented and have been in circulation for at least two decades; in fact, any one who's taken a college English class in the last ten years will recognize in these pages the aroma of the cultural studies movement -- a mélange of literary modernists and postmodernists (Proust, Woolf, Pynchon, etc.) and philosophers, quasi-philosophers and semioticians (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud, Barthes, respectively). Suffice it to say that if you're used to putting the words “truth” and “real” in quotes (and/or have a habit of making air quotes with your fingers), then you and Reality Hunger will be copacetic.  

But any smugness on Shields’ part is ultimately forgivable, as it becomes clear that he is not advocating for the legitimacy of lying and stealing, so much as making the case that our hunger for reality, the artistic drive to make art of reality and/or art that draws its power from employing documentary techniques, has been building for quite a while: John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. begins with a series of vignettes he calls “newsreels”; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men begins with Walker Evans’s stunning documentary photos.  

What is new, perhaps, according to Shields, is a disregard for categories and genres. ("Genre is a minimum security prison," goes one of my favorite axioms from the book.) He speaks openly (in the endnotes) about changing the particulars of a certain personal anecdote because its makes for a better story. Shields seems to come to the defense of memoir con artists James Frey and JT LeRoy by arguing that there is no longer a battle between “truth” and “fiction,” “authentic” and “fake" -- all art making, no matter the raw material, is artifice making. 

It's tough for me to admit, but Shields had me on the road to conversion. The unrelenting wave of quotes wore me down. He had me second-guessing, even sacrificing, my aesthetic sacred cows.  

In the second to last chapter of the book, "Manifesto," Shields writes, "If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms." This struck me as funny, because as the book winds towards its conclusion, Shields sticks close to convention. We are satisfied by stories that progress toward epiphany and revelation, not obscurity, and he gives us just that. As the book enters its final pages, Shields, who has spent most of the book hiding behind and between the words of others, steps on to the stage and reveals himself. He tells us that the short-short story is where it's at, as it captures the way life is actually lived now. He reveals that he is an increasingly impatient writer and reader -- traditional, chronologically-told plot-driven novels bore him. He agrees that plots are for dead people. Instead, he advocates for cutting to the chase, holding commercials, phone sex and music videos up as exemplars. “Look,” he seems to say, “this is the way everything successful is trending. Why fight it?”  

The picture of Shields that gradually emerges is more complex, compelling and playful than this. If you read closely, he contradicts himself with Whitmanian verve ("Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself; / (I am large -- I contain multitudes.)"). He fetishizes brevity and miniaturization, but also sings the praises of some of literature’s most infamous maximalists: Montaigne, Proust and David Foster Wallace. He regales us with quote after quote in which the desire to confess and tell the truth is held hostage by gangs of post-structuralists who will not relent until we acknowledge that there is no such thing. 

As a result, the book becomes less a staccato manifesto and more of an luxuriously messy essay, a form that Shields holds in high esteem because it encourages the author to question, hypothesize, pursue an argument to a dead end, and then backtrack at sixty miles an hour to try the other fork in the road. 

For those of us who have been thinking about these issues for a long time, Reality Hunger is an orgy of geekiness, and Shields is the one responsible for everyone getting laid. Much like Dave Eggers, Shields will be repaid for hooking his friends up by becoming a bona fide tastemaker and culture-shaper. Actually, I don't think it would be too strong to say that Shields's book will a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers. 

But to conclude, it is precisely this biblical feel that has me staying up nights. Shields relates to us the well-known story of Thomas Jefferson's New Testament, a personal version of the Gospel made by redacting all of Jesus's miracles. I wonder if Shields's view of art isn't, like Jefferson’s bible, a deistic one: Yes, there is a divinity who planted in us this desire to make art, but it is not capable of miracles or magic; it is not capable of pure invention. This is all we have. It’s all we’ve ever had.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields
Knopf
ISBN: 0307273539
240 Pages