Friday, March 11, 2011

Reality Hunger by David Shields

When Reality Hunger was first published it stirred up a plethora of responses —everything from knighting David Shields as the savior of contemporary writing to naming him the devil incarnate who was tearing down the pillars of narrative and replacing it with a clever tapestry of smoke. To some he had sewn the Emperor's New Clothes —many people applauded what they saw while others said , "It's all a ruse." What it did create was dialogue or perhaps simply responses. The ability to do that is an art.

For the past few years I've been drawn to lyric essays where association and collage holds sway over a strict linear thread; however, not all lyric essays merit reading. In art before you can do a successful abstraction you need to learn how to draw, how to use perspective, and how to observe light and then to paint objects with that awareness.

Shields refers to Reality Hunger as a Manifesto. Perhaps it is an encyclical to the writing community. Shields proclaims his boredom with traditional novels, with plot. He asks his reader to read his book without looking at the sources at the end of the book. If you follow his advice it is a seamless read with marvelous quotable tidbits. I find myself quoting his lines which have been appropriated from a superfluity of sources.

I copied this down," The hybrid, shape-shifting, ambiguous nature of lyric essays makes a flowchart of our experiences of our world." and I wonder is that Wallace or D'Agatha. I can check it at another time.

This collage that Shields created is seamless—it flows with an energy that doesn't feel truncated or staccato. Everything fits neatly. He does say that he often needed to form the quote or cut some words. Isn't that what fiction writers do—create a form or shape for their narrative?

Some critics question what is real and what is fiction within this book, but when Shields was questioned about that he said that he wanted the reader to accept the facts as facts. Filling in the spaces between facts is done by many professions. The archeologist makes educated guesses from shards, the paleontologist who doesn't find all the bones engages in acts of reconstruction. Writing Bibical Midrash means filling in the spaces between the words. There is much left unsaid—the stories between the words or between the spaces. Lot's wife looks back and turns to a pillar of salt—what was she looking at and why did she risk taking one last look? That question warrants a response—
a midrash.

Shields wants "Reality" present in our written work, but not the faux reality we're surrounded by—reality television which is anything but real. He is bored by traditional novels, by writers that write voluminous texts. Novels do not interest him. He sees little in them that is real.

I love losing myself in a good piece of writing, in a novelist who creates characters that speak to me and engage me. I like plot driven novels—that create a place for me to enter and follow the steps of another.

But I also enjoyed this book. I didn't need to compare it to something that it wasn't. I envied his ability to quilt together so many ideas.

Shields makes you think—even those of us who love narrative. I also love lyric essays and collage. I'm fascinated with his appropriation of phrases, with his ability to subtract words and add others. With the way he melds together differing pieces— a crazy quilt of ideas. He goads writers to think. He even has the audacity to suggest that, "You make something of your limits."

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line."

Joseph Conrad

Reality Hunger succeeds by prodding, by getting critics to agree, disagree, disregard, or stamp it as the new manifesto. There's a part of me that thinks that Shields is having a great deal of fun playing a part—both totally sincere and totally delighted with shaking up the establishment.

Personally, I'm glad I read Reality Hunger, but there's no need to swallow it whole or dismiss it. It's like a banquet—some dishes are delectable, others pale in comparison, and some are downright uneatable.

I think it has prodded me to try to spread out and try some new things, but not to replace the narrative—but to add some new shapes and forms.

Take a Chance Challenge

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