Reviewing the Review: March 14 2010

As if I needed more prodding to write about David Shields’ Reality Hunger, the book appears in today’s New York Times Book Review, respectfully reviewed by Luc Sante, who urges (I nod approvingly here) a calm and sympathetic reading of the controversial work:

On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come. The essay will come into its own and cease being viewed as the stepchild of literature. Some version of the novel will endure as long as gossip and daydreaming do, but maybe it will become more aerated and less controlling. There will be a lot more creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self- consciousness and high-spirited looting. And reality will be ever more necessary and harder to come by.

I like everything but the last sentence, which strikes me as a dramatic flourish. Is reality really ever hard to come by? It seems to me we’re all soaked in it.

But I’m glad Sante’s review avoids the hysterical tones Laura Miller and Sam Anderson displayed in their recent coverage, prompting a blog post from me which led to a conversation that, I’m pleased to say, Twitterer Michele Filgate called the best blog comments ever. Well, hey, we try to amuse.

What irks me about those rejectionist approaches to David Shields’ book is that they try to do to his ideas the same thing that the Republican Party is trying to do with the Obama administration’s sensible and necessary health care reform plan: caricature it, and reject it on the basis of the caricature. I’ve really had enough of that.

Because I’ve now written so much about Reality Hunger here, though, I feel it’s necessary to say that I’m actually not as ecstatic about this book as I may appear to be. I think Shields’ ideas are absolutely solid, and I like the way he expresses them, and I think the book will prove influential over time. But on a personal level I can’t help pointing out that I’ve been saying some of these same things for years. Suggesting that Laura Albert committed no fraud in writing the J.T. Leroy novels, for instance, or citing the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique as a golden literary model — maybe to Laura Miller and Sam Anderson this represents the barbarians at the gate. For me, this is old news.

Yes, my friends, we are soaking in reality, and today’s politics-minded Book Review nearly coalesces around the theme of wartime atrocity. Joshua Hammer’s review of Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts, about the rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by four American soldiers in Iraq in March 2006, is on the cover (providing a nice counterpoint to Newsweek’s current cover story, which proclaims “Victory At Last” in Iraq, because everybody loves a happy ending). Dialing further back into history, Terrence Rafferty posts an admiring notice of Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a novel about survivors of the Korean War that dares to suggest that the Korean war fell short of a happy ending for many of its trapped participants too.

Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades attempts to cover a murkier and more bewildering past. I’m glad that Eric Ormsby considers this history book a success, and I hope I’ll find the time to read it.

Then there are a bunch of other reviews, and comic strip historian Douglas Wolk provides an intense look at several comic strip books, including another classic Peanuts collection, this time from the 1970s:

“Peanuts” always had a bite to it; Schulz’s favorite source of comedy was the anxieties and humiliations of childhood. Still, some of these strips are unnervingly bitter even for him, as when Marcie destroys Snoopy’s doghouse in a rage, then screams at Peppermint Patty that she needs to “face up to reality.” It provokes laughter, of course, but shocked laughter: you can tell these kids aren’t going to grow up happy.

See what I mean? Reality. We’re soaking in it.

One Response

  1. I think Reality Hunger is
    I think Reality Hunger is important in the way Future Shock was important in 1970; that is, it galvinized a concept that was already a hot topic and set up some parameters, or some type of reference, to the concept.

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