Photo © Tom Collicott / Random House
Short take: This book is remarkable. Maybe Shields’ best. Much like Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City it digs into questions of what is real and what is fake. Like a documentary in book form, Reality Hunger incorporates dozens of voices. It presents high brow ideas so clearly and with such enthusiasm that it’s as fun to read as it is fascinating to consider. Send me your copy if you don’t love it.
Exhibit A: “Have you ever heard a record that makes you feel as good as Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips — Part 2? I haven’t. It’s so real. When you listen to the record, you can hear a guy in the band yelling, ‘What key? What key?’ He’s lost. But then he finds the key, and boom. Every time I hear that guy yelling, ‘What key?’ I get excited.”
Exhibit B: “My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media...who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.”
Both of the quotes above are taken from David Shields’ latest book Reality Hunger. For me they are the opposing forces that drive Reality Hunger, which draws on a stunning array of pop culture and high culture references. Exhibit A: just have fun with it. Exhibit B: take a sample, place it on the microscope, and analyze it. The risk of the former, for me, is failing to understand what draws me to a song/book/movie/joke; I really want to figure these things out. The risk of the latter, obviously, is spending too much time with my eye glued to the lens, missing out on life beyond the microcosm. (Lighten up, bub!) Thing is, I rarely strike the right balance. I tend to do one or the other. This doesn’t affect my ability to respirate or have a good family life, but reading a book like Reality Hunger, which embraces both, perfectly, is remarkable.
Reality Hunger looks at what is real and what is fake, what is fiction, what is non-fiction? Does it matter? Has it ever mattered? Shields addresses an astounding range of time periods and media. Hindu texts from the 14th century BC. Sonny Rollins. Bill Murray. Jessica Simpson. Emerson’s thoughts on the “cold, mechanical” nature of 19th century sermons. It’s all here and, amazingly, given equal consideration. With so many cultural references there is the risk of Reality Hunger turning into a text version of VH1 pop-ups — superficial name checking that has no accumulative effect. But Shields is so good at orchestrating all of the media considered that Reality Hunger is more like an excellent documentary.
I read Reality Hunger in three days — my version of a single-sitting — but I’ve spent three months thinking about how to concisely convey its hold on me. At this point I’m waving the white flag. I need at least one more read, maybe two, before I could offer a true review. This is more along the lines of my first impressions shared in the hopes that friends will read Reality Hunger and give me a chance to bounce my ideas off of them.
— Mike Faloon
Video: Reality Hunger