Real art for our virtual times

David Shields’s audacious Reality Hunger has provoked much discussion and many mixed notices. Thomas Larson, journalist, essayist, and critic, has just weighed in in Agni Online, wittily calling the book “an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative,” his essay as much about today’s cultural sea change as it is an appreciative review.

Larson is author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, reviewed on this blog, and of the forthcoming book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Larson has said the latter book was inspired by the same forces Shields explores and calls ita hybrid narrative that cuts back and forth between several different writing styles.”

A few highlights of his Agni Online essay:

The old world of print and genre separation is transmogrifying before our eyes, and Shields wants to awaken us to this radical change. An anarchic technology, whose “reality” is sampled and fragmented and mashed-up all at once, is calling the shots, not the artist.  . . . All we media dependents know for sure is that we are too-often engaged with the representational “reality” of TV, film, YouTube, and the Internet. The fact that we increasingly live with what’s on a screen confuses our senses of the real and the artificial. Things get extra messy when walking in a virtual forest and walking in an actual one are equal options. In a society where “real-life” and “reality TV” collide, authorial certainty and narrative suasion are gone. . . .

Writing’s quickening in our culture now feels high-strung, in part because we authors are unsure what the “reality” we live in and should be covering is. How can we, when we skirmish at the borders between fiction and nonfiction, which grow blurrier every day? How can we, when the actual, the mediated, the fantastic, and the false—think media coverage of the Iraq War, before and after the fighting—seem interchangeable? How do we respond to this inalterable rewiring of our culture? As writers, we morally oppose the artificial and yet take advantage of that artificiality. We live in the dizzying live-dormant app-grid, seduced by video, tweet, social media, and phone. It’s all some kind of real.

As for the novel, king of literature for 200 years—before that, poetry and the epic—Larson is sympathetic to Shields’s view that the genre has forever slipped from preeminence:

Such fables may have once provided moral instruction in pre-electric, uni-dimensional cultures. Appositively, Shields seems to argue, the novel is as outmoded as religion. The novel’s classic elements are authorial omniscience, dignified style, and resolute endings; in religion, the tradition is echoed by church doctrine, cathedral splendor, and an absolving heaven.

What’s more, novels carry a “pretense of actuality,” which, Shields says, no longer serves us: with fiction, with “Celebrity Rehab,” with the eco-friendly cartoon simulation of Avatar, we are being fattened, even addled, on artificiality. In an “unbearably artificial world,” Shields believes the novel brings no critical voice to our era the way memoir, essay, documentary film, and hybrid art forms do. The novel is no longer oppositional, no longer dialogical (in the Bakhtinian sense), no longer effective.

My favorite paragraph in his stimulating essay is Larson’s riff on Todd Haynes’s surreal biopic about Bob Dylan. Larson points toward what sort of imaginative nonfiction successors to the novel might appear or are emerging:

In Todd Haynes’s 2007 I’m Not There, we have the cross-border, gender-bending play of Cate Blanchett (a woman) playing Jude Quinn (a man) in a shot-by-shot improvised replication of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, a 1965 cinema verite about a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota (Robert Zimmerman) playing/being the world’s greatest self-invented folksinger (Bob Dylan). Jude Quinn is one of six different Dylans depicted by six different actors in the film. With Quinn, Haynes also limns Dylan’s self-destructive tour of England, before which he had abandoned his acoustic and political self for an electric and existentialist one. No novel could ape the self-myths Bob Dylan created and discarded and that Haynes’s film re-fashions, nor could it include actors whom we recognize from roles on screen and in life playing various incarnations of “Napoleon in rags.” Haynes’s homage to Dylan’s self-creation is neither novelistic nor literary, despite the singer’s purloined name. It is the province of live and recorded music, film, and cultural history.

Tom Larson’s complete Agni Online review of Reality Hunger is here.

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