on 28 February 2010
I'm not particularly adept at writing. I won't pretend to be. I'm a fine artist (painter) and tend to go guttural, with minimal editing when it comes to language. That is to say, in short, that for me writing is a stretch, and writing on writing is downright uncomfortable. But I feel obligated to Mr. Shields, and thus(ly) attempt a disquieting review of an important cultural artifact.
David Shields might not be adept at writing either - that's a big part of why I really like him. His attitude seems to be, "find the right tool to do the job, don't just do everything with a hammer." You're thinking, "how does carpentry come into play with Reality Hunger?" I claim: a) Reality Hunger is about everything, including carpentry and less importantly b) Shields has found a way to make writing relevant by any means possible... and to survive as a writer today it seems you've got to be willing to exchange hammer for laser, sword for raygun, pen for plastic at any moment.
What I like about Reality Hunger is that it simultaneously manages to make love to two separate beasts simultaneously - namely the past and future. In some strange way, Reality Hunger manages to lovingly caress Proust, Kafka and Woolf's thighs with one hand while fondling James Frey, the Wu-Tang Clan and Family Matters' tits with the other. You're thinking, "impossible," but it's true. There are a number of avenues by which to approach Reality Hunger, and I will begin with the most superficial: relevance.
Reality Hunger is deeply relevant in that it attempts to, and I found mostly succeeds at bridging gaps between otherwise isolated cultural flotsam through at least the last century of modern thought. This book is about form, and critiques itself constantly - not in purely self-reflexive self-congratulatory ways, but rather though illustrating a history of artists breaking form (musicians and writers primarily, with the odd fine artist thrown in for good measure). I found it deeply fascinating to find myself implicated in the reading of Reality Hunger and continually wondered, "How am I addressing this issue of function preceding form? If the novel is dying, this is surely a rush of new blood to the system. But painting is dying as well...hmmm." I haven't been doing this for as long as David Shields, so my ruminations ceased there. However, the measures he has taken as far as bringing writing, and the book as a form into relevant territory for all current media is not to be underestimated.
Another way to approach Reality Hunger is through a pure, naive sense of recognition and comfort. The book carries you, asks very little in return, and offers substantive gains in exchange for commitment. Like any fine, refined work, there are the seductive, easily digested qualities (hip lingo, hot references, dirty words and substantive ruminations) given more directly through their nature: Short, chopped up bits - like your mommy cutting that steak. However, I found myself surprisingly not-annoyed at being spoon-fed content. There are enough ambitious claims, bites that you take BEFORE thinking, "do I like how this tastes?" which trip up the common causal relationships you expect from the written word.
Realtiy Hunger is not direct - it is fragmented and frightened. However, it is not ABOUT fragmentation and fear - it is about how you overcome and supersede both of those conditions with a sense of grace. In short, Baudrillard ushered the age of signs without signifiers, and as a result we've had to wade through half-handed hacks commenting on commentary. Shields is a relief because he actually believes things can change, that Thomas Mann and Mos Def in the same sentence BELONG together, and that its our responsibility to connect them meaningfully. On top of which he's written the only book, in its book-ness which seems to add up to contemporary music and images.
If you've been thinking to yourself, "Jesus, when is writing going to get back into the picture?" You've got your answer, I think.