Monday, February 18, 2013

How Literature Saved My Life - David Shields

Recently I went to the post office to pick up a package, and the woman behind the counter said, "We've been holding this one since January 1, is this for you?"  It was a big, flat manila mailing package--a book.  "Oh yes, that's mine."  It said 184 Clinton St and it said Flying Houses (I live at 148 Clinton, f.y.i.)

This was the first piece of mail I received for Flying Houses from a major book publisher (Random House/Knopf/Borzoi Books).  I was expecting it to be Taipei by Tao Lin (from Vintage).  I had requested that book.  I did not request How Literature Saved My Life.

Regardless, I took this to be a moment of divine inspiration: slowly but surely, Flying Houses was turning into a reputable media outlet.  I would not pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately I wish I had because I fear this review will satisfy no one.

David Shields (not James Shields, the pitcher for the Kansas City Royals formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays, who has also written a book) has written thirteen books, the most prominent of which appear to be Reality Hunger and Remote.  They also appear to be written in a "collage" style that eschews traditional forms of character and plot development in favor of a sort of stream-of-consciousness.  How Literature Saved My Life is also written in this style.  I have many problems with this book so I will enumerate them.

#1: Shields does not really discuss how he was about to lose his life

This is not The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon.  It will not make you feel better if you are sleeping 20 hours a day and eating something and worry that you have no purpose to fulfill on earth.  He does describe some moments of ennui at a famous MFA program:

"I remember hearing my highly alliterative short story 'The Gorgeous Green of the Hedges' gently demolished in class and, upon returning to my apartment, eating bowl after bowl of mint chip ice cream until the room spun.  I remember admiring how some of my classmates (Elizabeth Evans, Mike Hutchison, Walter Howerton, Michael Cunningham, John Hill, Jan Short, Peter Nelson, Sarah Metcalf, Bob Schacochis) had figured out how to get their own personality onto the page.....I remember people saying that nothing ever happened to anyone in Iowa City and me wondering what in the world they were talking about.  I remember, above all, during the five years I lived in Iowa City, believing that what mattered more than anything else in your life was writing as well as you possibly could." (119-120)

He also later described being unemployed at age 30 and sleeping on his father's apartment couch in San Francisco and watching a uni-cyclist juggler on television, and how that had moved him to tears--and how, had he seen the feat in person, he would not likely be moved anywhere near as much.  This was a nice vignette.

The book is separated into more than a hundred of such vignettes, but the vast majority of them focus on Shields's engagement with a text or other such work of art.  In a sense this is prime material for Flying Houses because it gives us the very exciting opportunity of comparing his opinions to my own.

"Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  The book that I think of as mattering the most to me ever, but I read it more than thirty years ago and I find that I have trouble reading it now.  Seems sad--do I still love it, did I ever love it?  I know I did.  Has my aesthetic changed that much?  If so, why?  Does one resist that alteration?  I think not.  The book still completely changed me, still defines me in some strange way.  Proust for me is the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation in paperback, all the covers stained with suntan oil, since I read all seven volumes in a single summer, supposedly traveling around the south of France but really pretty much just reading Proust.  I came to realize that he will do anything, go anywhere to extend his research, to elaborate his argument about art and life.  His commitment is never to the narrative; it's to the narrative as such as a vector on the grid of his argument.  That thrilled me and continues to thrill me--his understanding of his book as a series of interlaced architectural/thematic spaces."  (152-153)

I could not read Swann's Way four years ago, and it is one of the three posts of Flying Houses that is (incomplete), though I did remark that,

"When I first heard about him, I thought it lied very close to the same aims I hoped to produce in my own work--the inexplicable singularity of a life, with all of its attendant idiosyncrasies, which thereby educates an audience more as to the total "meaning of existence." Lofty ambitions indeed, and I will say, after 60 pages, that I am sure Proust succeeds on his own philosophical level, but that 21st century American readers will find it extremely difficult to 'dig.'"

This does lead to the next topic, which is adapting literature to new forms of technology, but I would pause to remark that the above quotation may shed light on why I did not like How Literature Saved My Life: we seem to have a similar philosophy when it comes to creating literature that is "useful," but we go about it in different ways.  I do not like the "collage" method, though I did employ it in the past.  That method is popular with writing group peers and the so-called "MFA Contingent" but I prefer to take cues from modern masters and not try to invent new forms when society itself is enough of a spectacle that it bears relating in plain language, without the jumping around from topic-to-topic, channel surfing, twitter news-feed scanning, etc.  While I recently joined twitter about a week ago, and plan to use it sparingly, for marketing purposes (or to record funny incidents in my Tax Law class) I hope to fight against this urge to make literature more "user-friendly" for the "Me Generation."

#2:  This is not Taipei

I requested a galley copy of Taipei, which is Tao Lin's 3rd novel, from the author himself.  He told me that he would forward my information onto Vintage Books and that "hopefully" they would send one in January.  When nothing arrived, I cursed Vintage and major publishing houses (Melville House had sent my Tao's 2nd novel Richard Yates) and then went to pick up the package in early February.  It looked like they had come through!  Then I opened the package, incredibly, to find that it was this book and not Taipei.  Perhaps this is some elaborate trick or "test" being played on me (since Flying Houses may be "famous" for excerpting large sections of text), but I am sad that I will not be able to keep up with Tao's oeuvre.  However, while I don't necessarily disagree with Shields' statement, "I don't want to read out of duty," (167) I do want to read out of duty if people want my opinion on something.

But Tao is a good entry-way into the next point about technology.  For those unaware, Tao Lin is the foremost writer of my generation (we graduated in the same class from NYU) and has built his following entirely on his own through the various forms of social media.  His evolution as a writer has been fascinating to observe, and perhaps with this book he may actually enter some "year end best lists," as Mr. Shields apparently has. And the strongest part of this book, for me, are its comments on the current literary world:

"The individual has now risen to the level of a minigovernment or minicorporation.  Via YouTube and Twitter, each of us is our own mininetwork.  The trajectory of nearly all technology follows this downward and widening path: by the time a regular person is able to create his own TV network, it doesn't matter anymore that I have or am on a network.  The power of the technology cancels itself out via its own ubiquity.  Nothing really changes: the individual's ability to project his message or throw his weight around remains miniscule.  In the case of the web, each of us has slightly more access to a mass audience--a few more people slide through the door--but Facebook is finally a crude personal multimedia conglomerate machine, personal nation-state machine, reality-show machine.  New gadgets alter social patterns, new media eclipse old ones, but the pyramid never goes away....New artists, it seems to me, have to learn the mechanics of computing/programming and--possessing a vision unhumbled by technology--use them to disassemble/recreate the web." (188-189)

The only other point worth mentioning about Tao is usage of the term "scare quotes":
"Updike: 'I loathe being interviewed; it's a half-form, like maggots.'  Gertrude Stein: 'Remarks are not literature.'  Um is not a word, but I like how people use it now to ironize/mock/deflate put scare quotes around what comes next.  The moment I try not to stutter, I stutter.  I never stutter when singing to myself in the shower." (133-134)

"Scare quotes" are not a component of literature that has been accepted by the public on a mass scale by any stretch.  Tao Lin is largely responsible for the excessive use of "scare quotes" (and the reason I must put it in quotes, regarding Shields's failure to do so as a "hipper than thou" mistake) in new books, but Shields point is well taken nonetheless.  I confess this is a minor quibble but "scare quotes" deserve at least a moment of clarification.

#3: Recommended Reading

In order to fully appreciate this book, I really think you have to have read all of the books that Shields references--and there are many:

(1) Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
(2) Dead Languages by David Shields
(3) The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields
(4) Spiderman (2002 film)
(5) Prometheus Bound - Aeschylus (?)
(6) Reality Hunger - David Shields
(7) Shortbus (2006 film)
(8) Laura (1944 film)*
(9) Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973 film)
(10) Le Gout des Autres (2000 film)
(11) Anagrams by Lorrie Moore*
(12) "Weekend" by Amy Hempel*
(13) Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
(14) The Last Studebaker by Robin Hemley
(15) Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
(16) Built to Spill - Perfect From Now On (1997 album)
(17) In Bruges (2008 film)
(18) Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen
(19) The Guardians by Sarah Manguso
(20) The Name of the World by Denis Johnson
(21) Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
(22) Zona by Geoff Dyer
(23) Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
(24) This Is Not a Novel by David Markson
(25) "This is the Life" by Anne Dillard
(26) Butterfly Stories: A Novel by William Vollman
(27) History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky
(28) The Brothers by Frederick Barthelme
(29) The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
(30) Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity by David Shields
(31) "The Dead" by James Joyce
(32) Sherman's March (1986 film)
(33) Speedboat by Renata Adler*
(34) Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
(35) Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
(36) Now and Then by Joseph Heller*
(37) The entire oeuvre of J.D. Salinger
* books I actually want to read after this.

Note that this does not include the "55 works I swear by" section, along with perhaps a handful of other texts that are mentioned more briefly.

You do not need to read all of these books to "get" How Literature Saved My Life, but the book tends to function as a collection of books that inspired it.  While the book is marketed as "blending confessional criticism and anthropological autobiography," there is decidedly a focus on the former.

There are three parts worth noting where Shields slams Toni Morrison for complaining that her book didn't win an award and where Shields admits that he is actually kind of like George W. Bush and where Shields talks about Bryan Singer sitting next to Bush in first class where Bush confesses that he has been on Ambien "for years."  These are probably the "sexiest" parts of the book, though other parts do indulge in vague-erotica.

#4: Been There, Done That

The big takeaway from this book (for me, at least) is the "collage" as the new form of literature--and I don't buy it.  My zine "Autointoxication," (2003) flirted with this medium, and while some viewed it rather charitably, I am mostly embarrassed by it in retrospect.

Bite-size chapters (like in, oh say, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut) may be something else entirely, but blending a work of creative non-fiction by mixing in one's own patina with the aggregate of artistic cultural linguistics amounts to a book of aphorisms that may serve as a nice collection of potent quotables (things to write on a piece of paper that you tape to the wall in your "writing station") but does not compel me to run out to my friends and tell them to read.

Shields has written 13 books and has been quite successful, it appears.  However this book leaves the impression that he has given up on fiction as a method towards reaching psychological realism.  He is, as he notes, an extremely ambivalent person, and I am quite ambivalent about this book.  On the one hand, I am quite honored that someone decided to send it to me, and it has certainly opened up my mind a bit when it comes to literary experimentation (while I doubt that I will return to the "collage" form anytime soon) and there are a few nice passages, such as this one:

"Some people seemed to think I was the Antichrist because I didn't genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there's an oxymoron if ever there was one).  I became, briefly, the poster boy for The Death of the Novel and The End of Copyright.  Fine by me.  Those have become something close to my positions.  The key thing for an intellectually rigorous writer to come to grips with is the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms.  You can work within these forms or write about them or through them or appropriate the strategies these forms use, but it's not a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum.  The novel was invented to access interiority.  Now most people communicate through social media, and everyone I know under thirty has remarkably little notion of privacy.  The novel is an artifact, which is why antiquarians cling to it so fervently.  Art, like science, progresses.  Forms evolve.  Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason--or so I have to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me..." (129, emphasis mine)

Even in this comparatively pristine paragraph Shields make a comment with which I take issue: I am under thirty (for another 60 days, at least) and I think I have a notion of privacy.

There is also a nice part about him working at a law firm:

"My entire twenties, I lived on practically nothing, slept on my father's couch for ten months.  At thirty-one, I was a proofreader for Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro (PMS), a San Francisco law firm that represented the wrong side of every case.  The lawyers hated their jobs.  I loved mine, though, since I spent my entire time there finishing my second novel.  All the other subalterns were as bored as I was, and they were happy to print out copies of drafts for me, retype pages for me.  It was Team Shields.  We also discovered something new called a fax machine.  Very exciting.  I'd arrive before anyone else, and the lawyers would thank me for being such an eager beaver." (163)

That passes the LSAT Test!  A newly formulated test on Flying Houses that says any mention of legal culture on page 163 in any book passes the test (163 was my LSAT score).

But on the other hand, I just get annoyed when people write D.F. Wallace or DFW.  Sure, he is literature's answer to Kurt Cobain, but I think he's put up on a bit of a pedestal.  Sure, I've yet to review Infinite Jest here, but I will, I will...I just can't put him on the same level as FSF--and no one refers to that master as F.S. Fitzgerald.  In my opinion, David Foster Wallace is occasionally great, but more often tedious, and it can be quite difficult to derive pleasure from reading his work--he has about a 10% success rate and a 90% fail rate, though admirers of his will slap me for saying this, and I may disagree with myself whenever I get around to reading Infinite Jest (2013 or 2014--that's a promise!).

It's a petty thing but people that abbreviate him DFW are part of the larger problem of the "MFA contingent," who like to wax philosophical about Amy Hempel and Barry Hannah and maybe occasionally Nabokov but never Mann.  These are new 20th-21st century writers that have taken the short story form as far as it can go while still being recognizable as a prose piece.  I don't intend a blanket criticism of everything they've ever done--I just shudder at the thought that the new way to write is to get an MFA, get published, and just keep writing really good short stories--forget about a novel--takes too long--with the weird middle coming in "linked-short stories."

I guess I am like Kafka "who was unusually susceptible to textual stimuli, [and] read only a couple of pages of a book at a time" (182) and just don't have the time to go to the library, on a full stomach, and sit there for hours devouring literature in a huge chunk.  I want to check my e-mail and worry about some more "real" urgency ahead of me.

In summary, this book reads like a law review article.  It's not particularly enjoyable, there are tons of citations to authority (sadly without footnotes--but happily with a Cf. or two that I believe means "indirect support), and a reform is (sort of) proposed.  However, I am afraid that I have not gotten deeply enough into the mind of David Shields to fully appreciate his comic-linguistic asides.  Fans of his may love this, but as a newcomer and as a neutral critic, I can only regard this work as a "virginity loss" type experience--but laypersons generally don't receive galley copies.

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