Reality Hunger

I read this book a while ago, but I found it so interesting that I think I’m going to write a post about it anyway.

Reality Hunger is roughly the literary equivalent of a Girl Talk album: it’s assembled from quotes and passages from a variety of different sources (interviews, texts, articles, god knows what), and then pasted together into a fragmentary collage, divided into 26 themed sections (with titles like “mimesis,” “books for people who find television too slow,” “trials by google,” “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else,” and so on). At the end of the book, right before the footnotes that provide the original sources, the author invites us to read the main text without looking at the footnotes, or to even take a box cutter and remove the footnotes altogether—“your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.” (209) I have to say that the first way I was reading this book—flipping back and forth between the footnotes and the main text—quickly grew exhausting and tedious. So did skimming the footnote section before reading each chapter, so that way I would at least know who got cited, if not what specific quote. I most got into the flow of the book when I stopped bothering with the footnotes altogether, and just looked at them at the end. So for what it’s worth, Shields was correct in his observation that constantly referring to the footnotes would be disruptive for the reading experience. Still, it was cool to learn if a quote was by Sebald, Herzog, Terry Gilliam, etc.

What I most found interesting about this book were his comments about fiction vs. reality. His argument that artists should have the right to “appropriate” anything is—how can I put this nicely—not really that interesting to me. I’m like, whatever, people can do whatever they want. I would personally not be super cool with someone plagiarizing my work, unless it was maybe part of a Girl Talk-type project—or if it was someone, like, Jay-Z. But whatever, I’m bored to tears with this topic already.

Onto what I DID find interesting: the titular “reality hunger,” or a craving that people have for “raw” material—“seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.” (3) So yeah, reality TV, Cloverfield-Paranormal Activity type films, etc. Capitalism implies and induces insecurity in us all, via the constant invasion of people selling us things and making us feel shitty about our never-good-enough insecure forever-crappy selves, thus making us want to overcompensate by constantly projecting these illusions of “OMG I’m so happy and successful! My relationship is so great, my life is just the bomb, look at my online projections of my Self and be jalous of me!!” So even these supposedly “true” representations of reality are not really true—IT’S ALL JUST PROJECTIONS. Which is why it’s good to have gutsy books that completely SHATTER that narrative into tiny little pieces, books like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which “takes us down into the deepest levels of human insecurity, and there we find that we all dwell.” (44) HECK YES! For Shields, (or actually this quote is from Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own), “contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.” (182) So no wonder in face of all this constant fabrication everyone goes crazy when a gritty black and white video of the Jay-Z-Solange elevator fight leaks. Ugh, no wonder folks want to disappear into the wilderness, Into the Wild style, in search of something “pure” and unfiltered.

So yeah, for Shields fiction and reality always walk hand in hand together, like buddies at summer camp. I really liked his observation about Tina Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin—about how if it hadn’t been so closely based on the actual transcripts, on reality itself, then it wouldn’t have been as funny/unsettling. Truth really IS stranger than fiction, and is sometimes even harder to believe. He sets up the truth-fiction relationship quite well in the passage below, which reminds me of similar things that García Márquez has said about journalism (the actual quote is from Bonnie Rough—arrgh, I just can’t help myself, I HAVE to cite the actual source!!):

Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends. Unlike a fiction reader, whose only task is to imagine, a non-fiction reader is asked to behave more deeply: to imagine, and also to believe. Fiction doesn’t require its readers to believe; in fact, it offers its readers the great freedom of experience without belief—something real life can’t do. Fiction gives us a rhetorical question: “What if this happened?” (The best) nonfiction gives us a statement, something more complex: “This may have happened.” (6)

The other topic that I found interesting were his comments on the relationship between literature and truth. I find this FASCINATING and wish I could read a whole book on the topic (in fact, I’m probably going to have to). I loved the passages discussing the early form of literature—about how books that now form the canon of Western literature (the Bibile, the Iliad) were understood to be true accounts of actual events, and how early novels by Defoe and Fielding were passed off as “real” accounts. “The origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” (13) This forms a big part of Shields’ argument—that fiction now needs to return to this hybridity, that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction are no longer as distinct as people once thought (Sebald is the classic example; he also cites Naipul, whose A Way in the World has been sitting sulkily unread on my bookshelf for months).

For Shields, all the technical elements of fiction (third person, past tense, linear plots) are basically lying to us, creating a false sense of reality through the implication that the universe is a stable, ordered, coherent place, where one event unequivocally follows another. This illusion (or bald-faced lie) is why Shields says he is so “bored” now with the traditional realist novel, and why he thinks the future lies more in the hands of peeps like Sebald—writers who both confront the “real” world directly via documentary-style prose, and yet still mediate and shape it in the manner of fictional novels (Bolaño and Borges arguably do something very similiar in their own work). Shields would probably be down with this hotshit Norwegian dude Knausgard too, whom I haven’t read but whose books are lining the front shelves of every Waterstones here and who even Zadie Smith (who I always thought of as this very classical, traditional, realist straightforward writer) is apparently a fan of.

I can definitely see the sense in what Shields is saying, in terms of being “bored.” Even Zadie Smith with her last book (NW) took a route that was arguably much more fragmentary as opposed to here are my main characters, here’s the plot, here’s their journey & resolution, lol the end. NW was a book that dealt very much with the fragmentary conception of the self, which is another theme Reality Hunger touches upon. Are you just always a fiction of yourself, projecting yourself onto others? If facts don’t constitute truth (“I am this, I do that, I am loved by so-and-so,” then what IS true? How can you know anything if you don’t know the truth about yourself? (These anxieties remind me of Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Beckett-esque article for The New Yorker, about the glories of always being doomed to fail.)

All in all I found this book quite fascinating and could go on for ages, typing up all the quotations that I found intriguing… but I think I’ll stop there. OK, a few more:

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though—standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night—flies at us in bright splinters.” (113, Lance Olson)

“I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over the wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel less alone.” (141, David Foster Wallace!)

The urge to connect bits that don’t seem to belong together has fascinated me all my life.” (112, Sebald)

Life isn’t about saying the right thing; life is about failing. It’s about letting the tape play.” (54) (Jonathan Goldstein, on This American Life)

In the end I recommend this book as it raises extremely interesting questions about highly relevant, contemporary ideas. I don’t really care for his call-to-arms for artists to suddenly become, IDK, nothing but chains of infinite uncredited references, but the rest of the book is interesting enough that I’m fine with selectively letting that argument slide. Shields is an undeniably passionate reader and lover of literature, two qualities that I will always respect and be biased towards in criticism.

For my own future reference, here are some books Shields recommends: David Markson’s This Is Not A Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel (haha, so he’s a big Markson fan then!), Kundera’s Immortality and The Book of Laughing and Forgetting, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, McElwee’s Sherman March, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

 And on a final note, here’s the current always-hit-replay Girl Talk song that I’m hoping will get me through my marathon (!!!) in Edinburgh on Sunday. Especially the last minute. Heck, let’s be honest, I’m probably just going to have Girl Talk on repeat the whole time, assuming I can get away with using my ipod there. AAAAAAH!!!!


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Filed under books, non-fiction, review

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