June 28, 2010
Reality Hunger: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before1
The format: David Shields’ Reality Hunger is written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs. The content: Reality Hunger, according to the flyleaf, “is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about ‘truthiness,’ literary license, quotation, appropriation.’ That means mashups, sampling, the whole ‘meta’ thing. Get it?
The book's numbered-paragraph format is, among other things, ideally suited to presenting ideas as aphorisms and aphorisms as stand-alone objects. David Shields quotes a lot of aphorisms and writes some others himself. I just opened the book at random to look for some, and in the pages that presented themselves I found three.
The above statement about opening the book at random just now and finding three aphorisms is true. That makes it a piece of reality writing about Reality Hunger. Here are the three: “There is properly no history, only biography.” “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” They are from Emerson, Yeats, and Wilde. Aphorisms, especially absent their original context, are a stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying form. They’re popcorn shrimp on the buffet table of literature, postage stamps on the billets-doux and unpaid utility bills of the human spirit. To be honest, I think they're cool and fun to quote just as much as the author does. But then I love popcorn shrimp, too, so my original point stands.
As for those paragraphs, here's one: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original …theft without apology …” Followed by this: “In the slot called data, the reality is sliced in – the junk-shop find, thrift store clothes, the snippet of James Brown, the stolen paragraph from Proust, and so on.” See? He’s telling you why he’s throwing all those aphorisms in there without crediting the authors who wrote them. He's doing it to echo what he says is the new, magpie-like structure of 21st Century creation: appropriation without credit. But, as he explains in the end, the lawyers made him credit everyone at the end of the book anyway. He suggests you cut those pages out of your edition with scissors, but I’m not going to do that. It would diminish the resale value of the book.
So this book adheres to a self-referential form of literary construction, the “form follows function follows form” school that looks for a unifying concept and then seeks to mimic it in its own structure. It's not as bad as poems about vases that are shaped like vases, but there's some relationship there.
As for that paragraph, I beg to differ: Sampling James Brown is nothing like quoting Proust without attribution. Sampling James Brown is like collaborating with Proust from beyond the grave. (His, not yours.) It’s like eating the heart of a powerful warrior to imbibe his strength. It’s both respectful and rebellious, like those Zen guys who call themselves Buddhists yet say “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Hip-hop appropriation is cannibalism, not theft. Quoting a Proust paragraph without attribution is not cannibalism; it’s a trip to some museum where the exhibits are beautiful but unlabeled.
Shields quotes something from The Commitments (the movie; he says he didn’t read the novel) about soul music being “basic and simple.” Don’t go quoting that bullshit around me, Mister! Soul is rhythmically sophisticated, musically eloquent, and often lyrically elegant. (From Sam & Dave's "May I Baby," for example: "Each step you take my heart beats three times ...") So he’s quoting a fictional movie character who is derived from a fictional book character who is himself experiencing a form of second-hand culture. It’s the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, so no wonder the quality is bad. It’s pointless to repeat that stuff; there’s no point to it. Errors of condescension and superficiality are too high a price to pay for a self-referential literary model.
Shields likes Sarah Silverman and lavishes praise on her for the way she uses her own life as material. Okay, she’s funny, but so is Shecky Greene. Or should I have said Morey Amsterdam? (They called Morey “The Human Joke Machine.”) All comedians use their own lives for material. Most of them would eat the fingers right off their own hand for a laugh. Raiding their own biographies is standard operating procedure. Ain’t nothin’ new about about Sarah Silverman in that regard.
David Shields: I’m reading this book and I keep thinking “I like him," then "I don’t like him.” Sometimes he’s like the guy at a party who annoys you by constantly talking. Then you realize he’s really erudite and is saying some interesting things. Then he starts to annoy you again because he's so full of himself. I saw a guy like that at a party last week. I really did.
Now Shields is quoting Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Okay, now he's definitely the annoying guy at the party. Except that with that quote he becomes a stoned college freshman in 1971, and he's hitting on a SUNY Binghamton student who's wearing a burgundy leotard. She’s Jewish but not religious – in fact, she looks a little like Sarah Silverman - and she has an empty bottle of Mateus with a candle in it in her dorm room. Does he succeed? Depends on who owns the narrative, I guess.
Wait. I think I’m getting his rhythm. On the next page (I’m making notes as I go at the moment) he tells a story not unlike the one I just jotted down, about reading the diary of a girl named Rebecca. I don’t necessarily believe the story is true, but then again I don’t much care either way. (Note to self: Pitch a humor piece for a literary magazine about Proust’s sixth-grade essay on “how I spent my summer vacation.”)
I once wrote this about Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: "Some will argue that it's unfair of me to make snap judgments about a book that, by my own admission, I never finished reading. But isn't that supposed to be the point?" I mention that because it may seem unfair that to be mimicking Shields’ style. Hey, I’m appropriatin’ here!
Dude is erudite, though, I'll give him that. And that's enjoyable. I know what he is: He's a covers band. I like covers bands. I've played in few myself. It's an honorable profession, so long as you remember you're in a Led Zep tribute band and don't start thinking you're Jimmy Page.
This book reminded me a little of Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown, which as I recall also had a series of paragraphs in it, each a riff on a quote from someone else. I don’t remember the format for sure, though, and I’m not going to disrupt the reality-based structure of this writing experiment by looking for a copy. In any case, if the “highest form of criticism is autobiography” then that’s how I remember Love’s Body, and I’m the one doing the writing in this little transaction between us. I was lonely the week I read Love's Body. Roberto Bolano's novel Antwerp has numbered paragraphs too, but that's fiction. This isn't fiction. Or is it?
Shields talks a lot about Oprah. Know what would be cool? If he got on Oprah. That would be so meta. But he gives a free pass to James Frey – we all fictionalize, blah blah blah. Frey fictionalized his story about addiction and what it takes to recover. He lied about a program that helps people (one of several approaches, to be sure) and pretended you can conquer the worst addictions through self-will. People probably denied themselves the help they needed and died because of what Frey wrote. That’s where the cute stops being cute – when playing with ideas becomes more important than thinking through the real-life consequences of what we say.
The genre genre, the meta-level criticism. If that’s what Shields is doing, then what the hell am I doing? I’m writing about writing that’s all about other writing. It’s like this whole exercise is a set of those nesting Russian dolls, but in reverse, and with fictional narratives and hip-hop references painted on them instead of babushka scarves.
“You don’t need a story. The question is: How long do you not need a story?” That question appears on page 122. The answer for me is: Well before page 122.
Also on that page: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” That’s an Annie Dillard line, but consider it fair warning.
Somewhere else he suggests there really is a story but it’ll take some effort on the reader's part to find it. Effort requires motivation.
At the end I sorta liked the guy. He sounds like a lot of my friends, some of whom can be irritating sometimes too. So I either need to give this book a better review or find new friends. I was entertained by the book, for sure. It helped me survive a cross-country flight, even if it had fewer insights per mile than I expected. Still, it was awfully hard to see past the over-reaching and excesses. It almost seemed as if someone decided it would be a good idea to write a provocative book about our appropriating mashup culture, wrote a successful proposal, then retrofitted the whole book to the marketing proposal-ish concept.
I was left wishing I had gotten paid something for this review, since I paid real cash money for my copy of the book. Still, I respect anyone who can write a book that gets published and provokes some real debate. People will ask: Is he just a bombthrower? Like that's a bad thing. Bombs cast light - but then, only briefly and with a lot of wasted energy. (Hey, is that an aphorism?)
I wish this was a better review - as in both "better written" and "more favorable" - but somebody said that life is a series of compromises. If this sounds like a book you want to read, go right ahead. I won't assume the authoritative voice and pretend I can decide for you. Maybe I can quote somebody who says “buy it” and somebody who says “don’t buy it.” Then you can mash them together while dancing to music by James Brown with lyrics by Proust. Or something like that. Hey, do what you want. I'm not going to tell you where this next line comes from, no matter what the goddamned lawyers say, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
And you can quote me.
Posted by Richard Eskow at 12:20 AM | Permalink