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Real Life Remixed

By Josh Potter

 

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

By David Shields

Knopf, 219 pages, $24.95

Despite the cliché danger of judging a book wholly by its cover, it’s invariably the first place any reader starts. Good jacket design, therefore, can take advantage of this tendency to stretch the form and content of a book’s innards onto its skin. At first glance, and before digging into the text, Chip Kidd’s cover for David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto seems about as pretentious as book design can get. What he’s done is bleed the author blurbs, bits of praise from famous writers conventionally reserved for the back jacket and inside flaps, onto the cover. Names like Jonathan Lethem, Patricia Hampl, Charles Baxter, Lydia Davis and Philip Lopate literally cover the whole thing, superimposed even over the book’s title and Shields’ name.

Just as Shields has “goosed the zeitgeist,” according to Wayne Koestenbaum, and created “a pane that’s also a mirror,” according to Lethem, Kidd has deftly interpreted Shields’ work, which challenges the very conventions of books as we’ve come to understand them, attempting to probe and upset not only the rigid constraints of genre that color every readable text, but also the problematic nature of memory, identity, authorship, and the often arbitrary line we draw between fiction and nonfiction, reality and artifice. While his book is decidedly cross-genre (possibly “anti-genre”), Shields has loosely adopted the polemical form of the manifesto to make his case, and he’s clear from the first paragraph: “My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.”

It’s a bold, burdensome, important, and possibly Pyrrhic task, but Shields is wise not to let himself get too much in the way. Written in the aphoristic style of Nietzsche and others, the book is a collection of numbered snippets—not (aha!) unlike the blubs that litter Kidd’s cover design. Asserting that “the act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument,” and that “collage . . . was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century,” Shields has essentially DJed other authors’ text into an impressively coherent literary mash-up. And like a good DJ, Shields uses some “samples”that are instantly recognizable, while others blend with and become indistinguishable from the author’s own voice.

This approach is, of course, not especially pioneering (Shields is wise to recognize Burroughs and Brautigan, and quotes Joyce as describing himself to be “quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man”), but it’s employed this time as a provocation to his readers, contemporaries, and even his publisher. At the latter’s insistence, Shields has included an appendix attributing the 618 quotations to their original authors. Yet, at Shields’ insistence, the appendix bears a dotted line along which the reader is encouraged to cut and scrap this section of the book.

While I found the appendix useful and elucidating, I understand Shields’ contention that it changes the way the book is read. The three attributed epigraphs that start the book should be enough for readers to keep their bearing. Picasso’s oft-quoted “Art is theft” sets up Shields’ technique, Walter Benjamin’s “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one” voices Shields’ intent, and Graham Greene’s “When we are not sure, we are alive” describes the effect that Shields’ book should have if it’s successful. To be constantly flipping to the back for context actually draws undue attention to Shields, his scholarship and process, but more destructively, it interrupts the urgency of his argument and the liveliness inherent to the text’s ambiguity.

Therefore, it’s easy to get distracted by the book’s mechanics and interpret its necessarily self-reflexive qualities as the primary objective, but Shields is at his best using these tools to shake down the philosophical and psychological fabric of our media landscape. “Our culture,” he quotes Andrew O’Hehir as saying, “is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” It’s a fact, he claims, that has driven our infatuation with reality TV, memoir, voyeuristic use of the Internet, and desperate pursuit of objectivity in journalism. The result, however, according to Soyon Im, is that we’ve become “at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice.” A good section of the book is dedicated to dissecting the controversy surrounding James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, in which Frey took narrative liberties reserved for the “fiction writer.” Neither defending nor condemning Frey’s commercial motives, Shields uses the example (among many others) to dissect the “choosy, chancy, and temperamental” nature of memory, which functions to “back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on.” In the same breath, Shields skewers the “inevitable incompleteness of memoir” as well as the rigid genre constraints that prevent the “realist” novel from accomplishing its objectives.

The solution, Shields suggests, is a “blurring . . . of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction,” a sort of “ungenre” that uses “collage as an evolution beyond narrative.” DJs, collagists, and appropriation artists of all sorts know that “the copy transcends the original,” and that “reality is what is imposed on you; realness is what you impose back.” This has always been the case, as Picasso suggests, but Shields’ manifesto demands that we sort this out for good. Just don’t ask him which section of the library should carry his book.


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