Boundary Issues

Photo: Courtesy Random House (A Million Little Pieces); Steven Wilkes/Getty Images (Graffiti); Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images (Marina Abramovic's A House with an Ocean View); Lena Herzog/Courtesy of Lionsgate (Herzog); Robert Voets/Courtesy of CBS (Survivor)

Reality Hunger—essayist David Shields’s new quasi manifesto about the supremacy of exactly the kind of essays he likes to write best—has the most impressive cluster of blurbs in the history of literary PR. The dust jacket, front and back, is covered with them—not the usual canned one-liners but full-on ecstatic paragraphs from some of the book world’s biggest names: Jonathan Lethem (“It will be published to wild fanfare”), Geoff Dyer (“crammed full of good things”), Lydia Davis (“witty, insightful, and compulsively readable”), Wayne Koestenbaum (“the book our sick-at-heart moment needs”), Patricia Hampl (“sparky, brainy, passionate”), and many more. It is a must-see, epoch-defining, can’t-put-it-down collection of blurbs. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest quality blurb dealer.

Once I started to read the actual book, however, I noticed something unusual: Most of Reality Hunger’s blurbers are either quoted or lauded inside of Reality Hunger itself. What do we make of this curious recursion? Is it a harmless round of mutual backslapping? An ethical lapse? Or is it, in fact, an intentional breaking of taboos—and therefore an ingenious object lesson in the kind of textual transgression Reality Hunger is all about? In short: Should we be annoyed, appalled, empathetic, or impressed?

As with the rest of Reality Hunger, it’s hard to say for sure. The book’s driving obsession is with the way that boundaries between art and life tend to blur: how fiction migrates, thrillingly, into memoir; how poetic language enlivens the essay; how directors tamper with the objectivity of their documentaries. Its heroes are genre-benders like Borges, Werner Herzog, Sacha Baron Cohen—and, of course, Shields himself. (He used to write novels before moving, after an epiphany, toward free-form nonfiction.) The book opens by promising a kind of grand unified theory of reality-based art. “My intent,” Shields states, “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.”

But anyone looking for a systematic (or deep or original or coherent) discussion of these issues—anyone looking even for the manifesto promised in the book’s subtitle—will be disappointed by the reality of Reality Hunger. It’s hard to figure out exactly what the book is trying to say. Part of this is intentional; Shields clearly loves to keep readers off-balance. Just as Horace’s Ars Poetica was a mimetic manifesto—a poem about the power of poetry—Reality Hunger is a collage about the power of collage. It builds itself out of 618 numbered chunks of text, most of which quote sources (cited in the appendix) ranging from Yeats to Wired to Nirvana. Shields serves as our high-cultural D.J., sampling the hot expository beats and fat aphoristic riffs of his forebears.

It’s all, from a distance, fairly ambitious and vaguely admirable. And Shields, to his credit, does manage to round up some great sentences. (Emerson: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”) Up close, however, Reality Hunger is a disaster: a hash of vague statements, obvious history, hyperbole, and repetition. (And by repetition I mean repetition. Shields repeats things so often, and so smugly, that you want to reach across the art-reality threshold and slap him.) The book’s supposed profundities—that the line between fiction and reality is unclear, that genres can be more powerful when mixed, that narrative often imposes a simplistic order on the chaos of actual life—are, to anyone who’s ever thought seriously about any of these issues, a bunch of remedial Grade-A head-slappers. And yet Shields intones them with the air of a holy man whispering the final secret of the universe from his mountaintop. Meanwhile, he says nothing about what he means by “reality”—what it is, where its boundaries lie, or why something like The Corrections, arguably the best realistic novel of the last ten years, isn’t even worth thinking about. (“I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it,” he writes with obvious pride.)

I like genre-bending as much as the next person who is not a seventeenth-century French dramatist. But what Reality Hunger actually does is remind us how boring and frustrating this kind of art can be. Genre constraints are, yes, constraining, but they are also a gift: They help texts to function. They prevent, in other words, books like this.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
By David Shields.
Alfred A. Knopf.

Boundary Issues