David Shields's main argument in his new book, Reality Hunger, is rock solid: The novel has lost much of its force and should be avoided by writers who have any real interest in the future of writing. "This is the case for most novels," he writes in entry 378 (the book is made up of 617 short comments and quotes). "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." Is Shields, the quintessentially postmodern writer, advancing a new kind of modernism? Yes he is. As the architects of the '20s and '30s denounced the decorative habits/moldings of the previous century, the writers of the new age have to denounce the decorative and time-consuming plots. Entry 374: "I've become an impatient writer and reader: I seem to want the moral, psychology, philosophical news to be delivered now." Reality Hunger is a manifesto for a time that has lost all patience with plotting.
To better understand this manifesto, we need to associate it with two other works from the 20th century: Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. The first throws light on the form of Reality Hunger, the collage, and the second gets to its content: life and reality in the age of mass everything (production, media, markets, emotions). This universalization of narratives, images, and music has transformed culture itself into a material for the production of art, the transmission of ideas, and the circulation of feelings.
But whereas Benjamin's Arcade Project (mostly assembled in the '30s and, like Shields's new book, made of comments and quotes organized into chapters) is primarily concerned with the birth of the mall and mall culture, in Shields's book, the main concern is the decline and death of the novel and its culture. In much of Shields's recent work, he has turned inward to his own experiences (his place or position in life) to explore the eternally enigmatic area between fiction and nonfiction; with Reality Hunger, he turns outward to culture to present the reader with a hard fact: The novel has lost a terrific amount of value in what Linton Kwesi Johnson has called "the age of reality."
From entry 311: "Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: because they're no longer embodying what it's like to be alive." From entry 458: "So: no more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror." From entry 517: "In the mid-1990s, I thought I was working on my fourth novel, but the novel collapsed—I simply could not commit the requisite resources to character and scene and plot." To build his case against the novel, and its undying dependence on plot machinery and furniture, Shields assembles fragments from hiphop culture, rock music, reality TV, literary essays, interviews, and book reviews. But here is something that's worth pointing out: As with Benjamin's Arcade Project, the best parts of Shields's book are his own comments and not the quotes he has gathered from the four corners of culture. These comments express his thinking much better than the quotes, which never really break with their origins and fuse into a new and different text. Instead of offering a smooth surface, the quotes present the reader with tunnels to other works, other worlds.
Let's turn to Debord's Society of the Spectacle. This book, which was published in 1967, constituted a peak in a tradition of Marxist theory that began with Hegel's "System of Needs." It was Hegel who first understood that capitalism (which he called "civil society") would by its very nature not only be about satisfying real needs (for example, supplying the market with nail cutters) but also producing needs to satisfy. In Society of the Spectacle, which is a collection of 221 short theses, Debord declared that all of reality has been commodified: "[Commodities] are now all that there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity."
Shields is by no means a Marxist and draws almost no inspiration from this still-productive tradition of cultural criticism (which I find a little regrettable), but he does reach the same conclusion that was reached by Debord and, later, his successor Jean Baudrillard (who transformed the "spectacle" into the "simulacra"): In a world made up of illusions and simulations, people will turn to and hunger for reality (memoirs, reality TV, and so on). But the very moment that Shields meets Debord is also the moment that he departs from him—unlike Debord and Baudrillard, Shields correctly knows that fiction and reality cannot be separated. Entry 251: "Shortly after 9/11, the Defense Department hired Renny Harlin, the writer-director of Die Hard 2, to game-plan potential doomsday scenarios; in other words, fiction got called to the official aid, reinforcement, and rescue of real life, as if real life weren't always fiction in the first place." The line between reality and fiction has always been complicated, and this complication extends beyond both the recent history of capitalism and also the much deeper history of spoken/written language into the prelinguistic origins of mankind. Reality is a bitch.