I’ve spent this weekend reading David Shields’ exciting Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that urges us to reject the notion that fiction is artistically or philosophically superior to nonfiction. This impressive book is empowering me to accept and embrace for the first time the dread and boredom I have always felt when I pick up a new issue of the New York Times Book Review and see a bunch of articles about novels and short story collections I’ve never heard of and have no clear use for.
If I try to encode this instinctual dread and boredom that I feel into words, all that emerges is a familiar bleating cry: who cares? Roger Boylan reviews an experimental posthumous novel by Gilbert Sorrentino called The Abyss of Human Illusion, apparently “his final take on life’s absurdity” that is thematically “a logical progression” from his two earlier books. Maria Russo, meanwhile, reviews the story collection Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, who attends to “the predicaments of the American male with insight and flair”. Stepping aside from that obvious trainwreck of a topic, Marisa Silver tells us that Eric Puchner’s novel Model Home “cannily trades on the very characteristics that have come to define a recognizable California ‘experience’ in order to blast them apart, revealing the uncertainty and terror beneath the glossy postcard vision we cling to and dismiss”.
There they are, three fiction writers hard at work expressing whatever it is they want to express, and three reviewers weakly playing along as if they were deeply moved by the results. I have not often felt empowered to simply ask “who cares?” in this weekly blog column before — okay, I’ve said it before, but I know it’s not an impressive rejoinder, and I’ve never before felt proud to say it. Maybe that’s one reason I feel excited by Shields’ book. Reality Hunger inspires me to admit that my only interest in these three books is in the nuggets of truth each may contain. I’m not interested in these writers’ aesthetic sensibilities, or in their abilities to spin wonderful sentences or capture charming dialogue. I know that Sorrentino and Bausch and Puchner are skilled in the art of writing, but I should not have to apologize for the fact that I as a reader have a much greater hunger for truth than for art. These three fiction writers owe me nothing and, honestly, promise me little. Who cares?
I plan to write something more coherent and complete about the new David Shields book soon, though, and meanwhile I can find some nuggets of truth in today’s Book Review. A cover piece by Pete Hamill on James S. Hirsch’s Willie Mays delivers a strong if not surprising line drive into the lush green outfield of baseball nostalgia. Jason Goodwin diagrams the reality games travel writer Paul Theroux plays in A Dead Hand, his first foray into metafiction. Charles Bock convincingly presents some of his own controversial thoughts about “truthiness” when he appreciates John D’Agata’s About A Mountain, a book about the attempt to bury nuclear waste inside the Yucca mountain range in Nevada, but objects to a single hamhanded maneuver that spoils the book:
At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”
Charles Bock doesn’t like this and I don’t like it either. As for Cathleen Schine’s purplish essay about her early reading experiences, maybe my brain is improperly calibrated this morning but I can’t even make sense of this piece. The essay seems to be about her obsession with medieval writing and her early ignorance of classic 19th and 20th century literature. But then she reveals that her key literary obsession as a child was Dostoevsky, who was not medieval and pretty much embodied the essence of classic 19th century literature. So how does this article make sense? I just don’t get it.
Finally, my dissatisfaction with NYTBR rock critics continues. Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan sounds fairly fetching, but reviewer Ben Sisario doesn’t tell us whether or not the title comes from a Bob Dylan song (just as Charles Bock doesn’t tell us whether the title About A Mountain is supposed to be a play on a Nirvana song) and delivers tired snarky lines like “as long as a Yes concept album”, which only motivates me to point out that a Yes concept album will tend to be about 42 minutes long, the same as any other classic rock album, since that’s the technical limit of vinyl in the LP format.