Like any good polemicist, David Shields’ ideas are provocative, simple to repeat, and deep in their implications. In Reality Hunger he wastes no time in declaring them: we live amidst a movement of artists “who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” These artists pursue a “deliberate unartiness”; theirs is an art that’s finely crafted to look “seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.” It’s “Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination,” The Eminem Show, the essays of David Foster Wallace, art that’s “at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice.” The reality it offers is one fit for the Internet age: fragmented and frenetic, always questioning the line between fact and fiction, as comfortable with mediation as a second skin, happy to glorify the feeling of reality above reality itself. The ethos of this art is what Shields aims to speak for in Reality Hunger.
A spokesman must know how to convey his message without coming off as dull or condescending, and in Reality Hunger Shields uses a tried-and-true method to do so: the book itself exemplifies the very art it means to dissect. It consists of 617 aphorism-like fragments that range from a sentence to a paragraph in length, loosely grouped into 26 sections under headings like “mimesis” and “collage.” Arranged to suggest connections but lacking the tissue to make these connections palpable, the fragments create an invigorating reading experience because each one incites us to think — rather than doing the thinking for us.
Part of the genius — and the treat — of Reality Hunger is that Shields gladly disregards boundaries, whether temporal, cultural, or artistic. Leapfrogging across centuries, continents, and cultures, the book feels sweeping and concise, timeless and timely all at once. That Shields’ deconstructions-by-fragment absorb contemporary phenomena like James Frey, hip-hop, and J.T. LeRoy makes it clear that he is interested in our particular historical moment, yet his ability to trace commonalities across cultures and centuries suggests the more fundamental ideas linking our “reality hunger” with previous eras. Thus in fragment 10 we start in Rome, circa the 2nd century B.C., with Terence: “There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.”
A few pages later fragment 32 informs us that “the word novel, when it entered the languages of Europe . . . meant the form of writing that was formless, had no rules”, and then just a few pages after that fragment 38 seems to prefigure the modernist novel: “Emerson called the new literature he’d been looking to ‘a panharmonicon. Here everything is admissible — philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor . . .’”
In charting this progression, is Shields arguing that writing has continually embraced formlessness as a way of making it new? Or perhaps he’s claiming that as human knowledge has expanded, writers have had to create new forms to integrate it into their works. Yet how would your answer change if I showed you fragment 53: “Suddenly everyone’s tale is tellable, which seems to me a good thing, even if not everyone’s story turns out to be fascinating or well told.”
Reality Hunger is such a kinetic read because it’s continually opening itself to new possibilities. Though the book can be read straight through, its network-like form works best when readers order the 26 sections as they choose. Shields would likely smile approvingly at such a reading: in a nod to the creative commons that is essential to all art — and perhaps also as an acknowledgment that his thesis is more novel for its assemblage than its constituent parts — most of these fragments are quotes whose only attribution comes at the back of the book. Those who insist on knowing everything can spoil the fun and flip back to see which fragments are Shields’ and which are not (though Shields’ source notes are often purposively vague). These same people will be bothered that Reality Hunger is more of a breathless incitement than a laborious tract; the rest of us can enjoy the rush of thought as we scoop up fragment after addictive fragment and revel in Shields’ uninhibited free-flow of ideas. That, after all, is the joy of reading this wonderfully inconclusive provocation. Shields’ collage-like book seethes with the electricity of the possible
,on every page it evokes that wonderful feeling that comes just before the synapse fires and your brain lights up in thought. It makes one hungry to discover the art that lives up to this thrilling manifesto.