David Shields is a greedy man. He has ingested the best part of two millennia of philosophy, art and literature, and regurgitated it as the slender paperback that now sits on my desk – Reality Hunger.
The cover of the most recent edition of Reality Hunger is characterised by hip understatement. It is printed with three plaintive questions:
‘Is the novel dead?
Can you copyright reality?
Is art theft?’
There’s the suggestion that Sheilds’ publishers might have tried to sneak it under the radar as a piece of pop-philosophy lit. Make no mistake, though, this is no easy read. Imagine every literature critic you ever read shouting at the top of his or her voice and you have something close to the feeling this book elicits. Although it is light enough to be shoved into bags and read on trains, it really demands the weighted consideration usually reserved for holy books.
618 quasi-biblical verses and 24 chapters, each named for a letter of the alphabet, combine to form a collage of quotations that reflect Sheilds’ own unique worldview. At first I read the book as Shields intends – as his own cohesive text, each piece of thought-shrapnel an intellectual posture made by the same man.
It’s only when I stumble over a quotation I recognise that I jolt into awareness of Reality Hunger’s complex form. After this, I am bowled over by the brilliance of this approach. Shields states his position almost silently, speaking from a thousand other mouths. Reality Hunger really is aphorism at its best. It is sententious, but pruned of the overtly smug flourish of Wilde and the ugly chauvinism seeded in Nietzsche.
Under Shields’ own mandate, Reality Hunger is about plagiarism and intellectual freedom, so it is unsurprising that he is flagrantly anti-auteur. By borrowing from everyone, starting with Montaigne and ending with V.S. Naipaul, he argues that copyright laws now infringe our ability to be creative. Thinking of poor Grégoire Delacourt, I am inclined to agree.
What else can be found in the midst of all this cultural detritus? Another pressing theme: our obsession with authenticity and our cultural hunger for the real. The book reads like an ode to a provisional reality in which facts shift very quickly. No sooner have I thought this, than I am reading it there in front of me on the page – ‘the lifespan of a fact is shrinking’. Concrete facts are an endangered species and soon they will be extinct.
Reality Hunger also manages to do something else strange and wonderful with its polyvocality. It harmonises with each person’s internal weather and picks out the strains in the reader’s prevailing mood. The 474th quote of the book says something to this effect; ‘writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we’re in need of at the time of reading’.
As the book develops it becomes impossible to ignore the pointed demarcation made between fiction and non-fiction. While Sheilds borrows fragments loud in their praise of the essay form, he also gravitates to those especially scathing of the ‘conventional’ novel:
‘Plots are for dead people’.
‘The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe’.
Any committed reader of fiction will find it hard not to take this sustained attack a little personally. However, Reality Hunger succeeds not in reviling you from literature and culture, but in stimulating a renewed appreciation of both. It is extremely rewarding to read the book as a cultural map, noting down signposts you didn’t recognize; artists, writers and directors you’ve never heard of. After Reality Hunger expect your reading list to extend exponentially. There’s no doubt readers of this book go on to investigate the work of Sophie Calle, finally read Moby Dick, or explore the confessional poetry of Plath and Keats.
The length of this review testifies to the hefty mental punch Reality Hunger packs. It criticises the contemporary novelist significantly for using 700 pages to make only seven good points about human nature, but if stripping the superfluous stuff of literary fancy carves every book into the same mould as Reality Hunger, then perhaps the modern novel should continue in its current path.