America First?

David Shields in Reality Hunger is unhappy with Jonathan Franzen; however, the bone he picks is of a more interesting kind:

Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel…. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.

The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

For Shields, the novel is too labored and theatrical adequately to express an age as fragmented and frenetic as our own. Evidently contrived, it is inevitably “perceived as false.” It is also wasteful:

You have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.

What to do? Reality Hunger puts together 618 numbered paragraphs that simultaneously seek to justify Shields’s conviction that the novel is no longer the form for our time and, more importantly, grope toward a form that would be adequate. It is not simply a question of rejecting artifice in exchange for fact-checked nonfiction: every account of the past is more or less fictional, since our urge to grasp reality is matched only by our instinct to shape it; indeed that shaping (falsifying?) instinct is itself part of reality.

The form Shields gravitates toward is the kind of memoir or essay that exposes the tension between revealing and shaping, reporting and creating, incorporating chunks of “reality”—literary quotations, newspaper reports, whatever—and transforming them through style and juxtaposition so that the reader is constantly aware of the distance traveled between world and word, experience and autobiography. Quoting a wide range of models—W.G. Sebald, Lorrie Moore—and including practitioners of the graphic novel and collage art of every kind, Reality Hunger becomes itself a witty demonstration of the form, as Shields draws on a wide range of reference, mixing historical reports, personal events, discussions of new media, and literary quotations (some verbatim, others rejigged), to construct a protean polemic that is also an account (whether accurate or not we can’t know) of his own mental life.

Controversially, these quotations and borrowings, at least one in every paragraph, come unannounced and with an invitation not to check the reference list on the end pages, thus challenging the proprieties of literary etiquette and suggesting the extent to which all utterances form a continuum that it makes no sense to divide by reminding ourselves who said what. In short, the new form he foresees would sever the tight relationship between individualism and literature that has been with us since the Renaissance: Shields’s new author no longer claims that the work is his own, nor does he accept that others “own” their work.

Most importantly, Shields knows how to provoke argument without needing to crush all opposition. Rather, the tussle between reader and writer over the nature of reality, the nature of the text we are reading, is itself the aesthetic experience he is after. So while sharing his ennui with a wide range of fiction and thoroughly enjoying his capacity to seduce and perplex, it’s hardly a criticism to say I’m not convinced that the novel can’t still play some exciting cards. Indeed, of all the stories in Best European Fiction 2010, my favorite was Igor Štiks’s traditionally told account of a young man and woman rummaging through items at a Sarajevo market in time of war; here the discovery of a pocketwatch with an inscription made during a previous war redefines and redirects the couple’s relationship in a way as anxious and uncertain as it is free from all melodrama.

On second thought, however, it may well be that this story—with its precise historical references and incorporation of “real” items from the bric-a-brac of besieged Bosnians—is a reworking of the author’s personal experience and not in the end so far from the sort of writing Shields proposes. Certainly we are made to feel that a great deal is at stake for the author in the transition from original experience to finished story, and likewise for the translator in the movement from original text to English version.

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