David Shields’ ‘How Literature Saved My Life’ Substitutes Flaccidity for Fervor

David Shields, associative thinker and insurgent of literary norms, has made a hobby of usurping established bibliophilic conventions. Alongside similarly “unclassifiable” wordsmiths Geoff Dyer, Elif Batuman, Nicholson Baker, and Jonathan Lethem, Shields has been at the forefront of the genre-defying, boundary-obliterating movement. However, Shields has voiced his conscious decision to fight labels and genres far more boisterously than his peers, who do so with a certain aptitude for subtlety. (Lethem doesn’t consider himself a purposeful genre-bender; his is just a macaronic style channeling his diverse influences, which range from Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler to Saul Bellow and proto-Brooklynite L.J. Davis.)

Shields rejects any single moniker. He’s mentioned “anti-novels”, pieced together from scraps, and says the lyric essay is America’s greatest literary accomplishment (but we should drop the label and just call it writing). In his invidious 2010 manifesto, Reality Hunger, Shields argues for more realism in writing. Using lots and lots of quotes (more than half the book is comprised of other people’s writing, ala Lethem’s experimental essay “The Ecstasy of Influence”), he rails against fiction, depicting it as a false, persnickety, inauthentic way of willfully ignoring what really matters. He channels John D’Agata (whose collaborative meta-essay-excursion The Lifespan of a Fact explores the accepted realm of non-fiction and repercussions of veering out of said realm), albeit much less angrily. His is more of a passive aggressive slam—a bump, maybe. Albeit a bump that bruises.

Absurd as Shields’ notions of literary warfare may be, his bombast is admirably fervid. Reality Hunger is engaging, illuminating even. “The absence of plot leaves the reader room to think about other things,” Shields says . Is he sort of insinuating that the reader isn’t quite sharp enough to discern multiple layers? That they can’t flense deft wordplay and exhume the not immediately perceivable? That they can handle plot, and they can handle ideas, but put them together and whoa, mental malfunction? It’s a compelling provocation, either way.

Reality Hunger is artful artifice, vivisecting the layers beyond the veneer of verbosity; Shields tries to say something more profound than your Klostermans and your Sedarises and, though he often misses the mark, he gets you to think, makes you uncomfortable, makes your brain itch like sticky fingers are picking through your head. “I live and die for the overt meditation,” he says. Shields delivers a transcendent collage that (should) spur lamenting and loathing in equal measure, but most significantly it should spur the desire to seek the writers Shields snips from.

Shields has always saturated his writing with himself, connecting obscure and seemingly irrelevant cultural allusions to the daily minutiae of his life. He’s more associative-musing than solipsisticly ranting, but his contradictory illations can occasionally veer into mental masturbation. In a less-than-loving review, James Wood said of Shields: “[He] prosecutes an effective, if coarse, sub-Barthesian argument against the traditional novelistic machinery. He rants a bit, apparently fearful that if he were quieter we would not believe in his sincerity; hungry for his own reality, certainly, he also mentions himself a great deal…”

His newest work, the meandering, confessionary How Literature Saved My Life, displays even less focus than Reality Hunger. His vision is nebulous. He drops cultural reference after cultural reference while drawing direct connections to his life, somehow eluding answers but tossing questions like a flower girl tossing pedals at a wedding. It’s a defense of art as life support… sort of. Maybe.

He begins the slim, enigmatic collection of critical thoughts with “All criticism is a form of autobiography.” Shields stuffs each mini-essay with his own emotions and proclivities, allows himself to seep onto every page, telling us about his erratic college love life and his dire fear of sinking into the same inane, misologist life as his parents, but he remains strangely distant the whole time. The fervor of Reality Hunger has diminished. His illations are exclamatorily definitive and wholly amusing (he compares himself to George W. Bush, who is a homebody, spiteful of his father, went to extreme measures to avoid being drafted, is unnaturally defensive, and, while allegedly very smart, can’t speak articulately), but there’s something shallow and unsatisfying here.

How Literature Saved My Life is a writer lying himself out on an operating table, using art—movies, music, literature—as a scalpel, and somehow managing to spill very little blood. Each fleeting thought, captured on the page like another firefly in a mason jar, vicariously illuminates some tiny bit of Shields through criticism. In dreamy drifty brevity, he discusses Lethem’s Chronic City, a pot-fueled, paranoiac, pseudo-surreal novel in the vein of Haruki Marukami:

“Jonathan Lethem’s novel takes place in a cauldron of the mind that’s an impossible amalgam of George W.S. Trow, Jean Baudrillard, Philip K. Dick, Slavoj Zizek, Vonnegut. There’s a staggering amount of plot, but it’s never not functioning as metaphor. The narrative is never not getting at the frenzy of the visible—at delusions of innocence in our unprecedented era of prosperity, the sterilized bubble of privilege that we inhabit and that has never before been remotely encountered on the planet… Life comes to feel hypothetical, until it suddenly doesn’t. I see here Lethem’s way rather than my way to attempt to reaccess the real by pulling chaldrons from our eyes. I’ve long been fascinated by what are now nearly daily (hourly) media crisis hiccups, e.g., in Chronic City, a giant burrowing/boring tiger… In a Times op-ed Lethem wrote several years ago—’if everything is broken, perhaps it is because for the moment we like it better that way’—he somehow captured my ineffable lostness. Aurora, anyone?”

After that last line, he has a page break and jumps right into another ephemeral thought about Robin Hemley’s thoughts on our affinity to inject/project emotional life into things. Then another page break, and a series of digressive anecdotes on childhood television shows, dirty magazines, Boy Scout belts, and vulgar house painters, ending on the thought: “Is desire, then, a sort of shadow around everything?” These passages almost work, but they fall short of real elucidation. We can see his point—his analysis of Lethem bleeds into his memoirish musings, showing us how literature matters because we make it matter. While his philosophy isn’t quite revelatory, it’s an intriguing section that demands for more incision, more navel-gazing.

Too bad Shields remains aloof, as gentle and harmless as he was abrasive and emulous in Reality Hunger. Every transitory passage feels like a prologue to a longer, deeper piece that never coalesces. Shields’ on-page persona is like a passing brume of butterflies that you can never catch.

RATING 6 / 10