Friday, March 12, 2010

Reality Hunger by David Shields

I keep a commonplace book. It's actually a file on my laptop made of quotes -- bits & pieces of text that I've found that, for whatever reason, I have felt compelled to keep and occasionally revisit. It's full of found words: epigrams, poems, lyrics, offhand remarks, paragraphs taken out of larger essays, jokes. Every once in a while, when I am feeling a bit lost or I just feel like browsing, I will dip into it, and -- as often as not -- what I read there will get my tired synapses firing, and I am invigorated.

When I picked up David Shields's new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, I got a similar feeling. Made up of 618 numbered pieces of text -- some very short, some longer -- this book seems to build an argument for a new artistic movement, one that takes our contemporary society -- filled with packaged forms of "reality" -- into account.

It kind of succeeds.

Now, as a rule, manifestos make me crazy. Making rules about art is tricky. As soon as an artistic rule is stated, along comes an artist who violates that rule...and still manages to make great art. To paraphrase what a writer once told me, "Once it becomes artistically possible to do something, it becomes just as artistic to NOT do it." And vice versa.

The numbered texts in Reality Hunger are preoccupied with the themes of reality and artistic creation. What is real? What is art? And what is the relationship between the two? These are not new questions. Nor are they answerable in any final, definitive way. Yet, for over 200 pages, this book attempts to grapple with them. Why?

Years ago, the writer Philip Roth complained about the frustration he felt when the daily headlines seemed to trump anything his imagination could come up with. This has not seemed to slow him down. And, I think, the same sort of frustration inspired Mr. Shields to produce Reality Hunger.

It's important to note that David Shields is an accomplished fiction writer. So he's not just some well-read theorist. He's a foot-soldier in wars of art, having battled to both create art and market it. And, as a veteran of those wars, he is familiar with the paradox of the necessity of asking unanswerable questions.

This is not to say that this book is a waste of time. Far from it. Its 618 parts are thought-provoking (and are followed by an appendix that is equally provocative) in the way my own commonplace book is. Or a Zen koan. And, once one has read their way past the 618th part of Reality Hunger, one's mind has been exercised enough to recognize the part that imagination and passion play in our dealings with the world around us.

So what, in the end, does Reality Hunger accomplish? I think it is a masterful exercise in exploring the current relationship between reality, art, and commerce. And I think it succeeds in arguing for the primacy of art. Art, the book finally admits, is what we make as we react to reality. Whether we label it fiction, non-fiction, reality television, or an essay, is immaterial. It's the exercise that makes us strong.

by David Shields
published by Alfred A. Knopf

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