May 19, 2013
Posted on Feb 25, 2011
By Shaun Randol
Many years ago, when I first encountered Garrison Keillor and his droll tales of the good people of the sad town of Lake Wobegon, I took the stories to be true. Young and unaware of National Public Radio, I was unfamiliar with the author and the weekly radio program on which Keillor weaves amusing and sweet tales of the fictional Minnesota town. When I finally discovered my folly I felt only a tinge of embarrassment at having been swindled. Mostly I was thrilled because what I had taken to be real was revealed to be imaginative. The rug of perception had been yanked out from under me; my mind and emotions had been taken for a ride, and I loved the feeling.
It sounds a little silly. Yes, Garrison Keillor duped me. But who hasn’t been hoodwinked in similar fashion? Millions of innocent foils were taken by James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” (Random House, 2003) and the shaky-camera breakthrough mockumentary “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). Even the venerable New York Times was sold a bill of goods by the plagiaristic reporting of Jayson Blair. It does not matter by whom or what we have been taken for a ride—what matters is that, at one time or another, we all have put our weight onto something we believed to be real, only to fall flat once the foundation of “truth” was removed. And that’s exciting.
The head-spinning feeling of vertigo that comes with being unsure of what is real and what is not is the essence of David Shields’ “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” In a culture driven (and riveted) by pseudo-reality, infotainment and superficial forms of distraction (think: “reality” television, Auto-Tune, Glenn Beck), Shields is bored with traditional forms of narrative in novels. Because society as a whole has moved into new realms of storytelling, traditional conventions, especially the standard, Victorian formula of the novel, are passé. The black-and-white contours of what constitutes fact (Wikipedia) and fiction (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) are blurred, so why can’t the novel—or the biography, for that matter—be just as gray?
In other words, Shields demands that the novel (and some forms of nonfiction) be reinvented to match the frenetic, mixed-up, piecemeal 21st century world we live in. Anything short of this reinvention renders the novel—as we know it—a nostalgic art form.
To drive the point home, “Reality Hunger” is itself a meta-critical work of art (I use the term art hesitantly, but purposefully). The book is a collage; most of the numbered 617 vignettes and aphorisms that constitute the manifesto are the words of others (Matisse, Bellow, Mailer, you name it), though rarely are the idea originators cited. To wit, item 174: “The genius of memory is that it is choosy, chancy, and temperamental.” Who said that? Shields? Horace? Who knows? Who cares?! Shields borrows from others with abandon and without citation to put the reader at unease—to force the audience into a situation where up is difficult to discern from down, where fact cannot be distinguished from fiction, where Shields cannot be separated from Chekhov. Indeed, the fact that most of the book is borrowed material is not even revealed until halfway through, at which point—though I was sitting still—I experienced vertigo. What or who had I been reading up until that point? The rest of the book, then, while already captivating, became a thrill to read.
The life of the average American is a continuous, rapid-fire onslaught of information, disinformation and infotainment, in which fact cannot be easily distinguished from fiction. The 21st century novel should reflect this, Shields contends. He calls for genre-exploding material that extends beyond the realm of biography and literature. Writers must catch up to other forms of art (like mixed-media art or hip-hop music). And if they can’t, then the novel as we know it is dead. “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms” Shields, or someone, says.
While publisher Knopf’s lawyers demanded that citations be put into the book somehow, some way, Shields pleads for readers to not only ignore the references in the back, but to take a knife to them and remove them completely. Respecting his wishes, but leery of ripping pages out of a book, I honored his request: “Stop; don’t read any farther,” he pleads, and I obliged. Thus, in this essay, unless the quote comes from chapter “t,” initialed “ds,” I cannot tell the reader if it is Shields or another whom I am quoting. Well, except for one: “When we are not sure, we are alive,” says one epigraph (Graham Greene). “Reality Hunger” is more than a manifesto—it’s an experience.
Laying a Foundation
Some critics have erroneously accused Shields of being anti-fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Reality Hunger” is peppered with authors and novels that excite him deeply, from the well known to the obscure: E.M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” Renata Adler’s “Speedboat,” Michael Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip,” David Foster Wallace, to name merely a few.
What Shields laments is not the story, but the story as it is popularly told and accepted, an antiquated form that has changed little since novels emerged in Victorian times as entertainment for homebound, upper-society women. The world of the 21st century is one of rapidity and technological change that is remarkably distinct from 19th century living. Why is it, then, that literature has not evolved as well? While many art forms have gone through tumultuous change, experimenting with many frameworks and methods, the novel as a form remains predictable. “The kinds of novels I like are ones which bear no trace of being novels,” Shields declares.
These are trying times for the would-be novelist. Just think of all the competition inside and outside traditional forms of media: blockbuster films, the Internet, smart phones, 24-hour news, “American Idol,” tea party gatherings, Sarah Palin, Balloon Boy, celebrity gossip and mishaps, more and more “reality” television, the iPad, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and on and on.
Not only are the distractions from the printed novel profligate, they are increasingly fascinating. People are fictionalizing segments of their “reality” in order to gain fame (Balloon Boy), fortune (Bernie Madoff) or followers (Sarah Palin). Conversely, fictional or “unreal” elements of life are being molded and shaped into increasingly “real” existences (e.g., the massively popular online video game, Second Life). Fiction, it is declared, has “never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” And bitingly, “Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?”
As I see it, three foundational elements shape Shields’ call to arms, of which the first two are closely related: genre breaking, unsurety, and “in-scaping.” Combined, these elements better capture our collective societal experience, and create excitement for both the originator and the audience.
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