Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"Reality Hunger" by David Shields (Penguin, 2010)

A plea in 618 numbered paragraphs for fewer standard novels. He begins with "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" (p.3). He mentions that "extended aphorisms [Ecclesiastes, Confucius, Heraclitus] eventually crossed the border into essay" (p.8), that "essai" means "experiment", that "fiction" derives from "fingere" meaning "to shape", that according to Coetzee, the word "novel" "meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along". He likes a return to these original notions, where facts can be experimentally shaped. He likes mixed-form novels that combine essay, memoire, reportage, fable, hoax, etc (he mentions Sebold, Brian Fawcett, Bernard Cooper). He likes collage and sampling (in this book he doesn't separate quotes from his own words, and he sometimes adjusts the quotes. The last section of the book lists the sources)

He distrusts the supposedly factual, quoting Marshall - "Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What's stored in that memory isn't the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience", adding that "As a work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren't prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art - underprocessed, underproduced - splinters and explodes" (p.27)

He dislikes chronological narrative as the principal structuring device - "The grandfather clock is the reflection of its historical period, when time was orderly and slow. .. By the 1930s and 1940s, wristwatches were neurotic and talked very fast. ... Next, we had liquid-crystal watches that didn't show any time at all until you pressed a button ... Now, no one wears a watch; your phone has the time" (p.123)

The lyric essay appeals to him. He likes Kundera. He likes Proust. He points out that Marcel plays a similar role to the "I" in poetry as regards the stance viz a viz the author. He writes "The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they're both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems - The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard's For the Time being" (p.202).

He likes short-shorts (Jayne Anne Phillip's "Sweethearts", Jerome Stern's "Morning News" etc) because they focus on the essentials. He likes novels that are more short story collections. He's not keen on books like "The Corrections", preferring "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", "Nadja", "Letters to Wendy's" etc.

He dislikes the hidden omniscient author, the "cooked" novel. I guess he feels it's more psychologically honest for the author to follow the twists and turns of thought across genres (using quotes, anecdotes and fables to illustrate points) rather than try to fake objectivity and watch the clock. He admits to "the lure and blur of the real", but doubts whether the veracity of the supposed real matters.

  • "Serious nonfiction removes fiction's masks, stripping away monuments to civilisation to arrive at truths that destroy the writer and thereby encompass the reader - the last shred of human expression before silence seizes all words", (p.149)
  • "The beauty of reality-based art - art underwritten by reality hunger - is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) "life as art"", (p.166)
  • "It was exciting to see how part of something I had originally written as an exegesis of Joyce's "The Dead" could now be turned sideways and used as the final, bruising insight into someone's psyche. All literary possibilities opened up for me with this story. The way my mind thinks - everything is connected to everything else - suddenly seemed transportable into my writing", (p.173)

He'd like more prose writers to take advantage of the poetic voice - its inclusiveness, the freedom of its narrative trajectory. But I don't see why some anecdote or fable shouldn't bud off and create its own frame, the reader adding the context.

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