Pamela Erens‘s first novel The Understory (Ironweed Press, 2007) was a slim volume but a gem. Unfortunately, it only found a small audience of diehard fiction lovers, but anyone who read it immediately saw the brilliance of the work (Tin House will be reissuing it soon). When Tin House published her second novel, The Virgins, suddenly it seemed as though the entire literary world woke up. Quality and lengthy reviews and essays appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Book Slut, The Independent, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as in a slew of other places.
For being such a small endeavor, Gently Read Literature has been obscenely fortunate to have not only reviewed The Understory and The Virgins, but to have had Erens herself review for us. With AWP 2014 raging this week, I thought it a good idea to present to you a compendium of Gently Read Literature’s Erens commentary.
Below are two reviews of The Virgins, the first from Sophfronia Scott featured in the Fall 2013 issue and the second from Ed Davis that ran in the current Winter 2014 issue. Then there’s Zinta Aistars’s review of The Understory which was featured in November of 2009. Later on that year, Erens reviewed Pasha Malla’s The Witdrawal Method and then in2010 David Shields’s Reality Hunger.
Alongside Paul Harding and Alissa Nutting, Pamela Erens may be quietly becoming one of the most important writers in the country.
A friend’s teenage son recently complained to me about having to read the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace. The 1959 boarding school tale of the introvert Gene and the dashing, athletic Phineas is considered a classic and finds its way onto many reading lists, much to this one young man’s vexation. “Why do people still read it?” he asked. “That guy was just a jerk if you ask me.” I wholeheartedly agreed: Gene was a jealous, sneaky, inconsiderate mess of a jerk, but he’s also the reason why people read the book—and don’t forget it. I read A Separate Peace in high school too, and all these years later Gene is still on my mind. I still blame him for Phineas’s death and his skulking around the campus of his alma mater as an adult feeling sorry for himself still doesn’t win any points with me. I can’t entirely dismiss him, though, because Gene’s envy of Phineas is achingly familiar. Who hasn’t yearned to be the prettiest, the handsomest, the captain of the cheerleaders or the all-star jock? Yes, Gene was a jerk, but he makes us uncomfortable because we know how easily we might switch places with him and, in the heat of a moment, reveal ourselves in that one errant move that changes everything.
Pamela Erens’s novel The Virgins also takes place at a boarding school, Auburn Academy, and she casts it with a number of characters with whom a reader might identify. I will admit, though, my experience with A Separate Peace was working on me as I read it. Even before we learn the name of Bruce Bennett-Jones, his first person description of the novel’s opening scene of hanging out with his friends, claiming the entitlement of being seniors at last, and sizing up the new arrivals for potential girlfriends despite already having one, had me wary of him from the start. I wondered which poor glorious personality would inspire his envy and have to pay for it by the end of the book. He meets the object of his obsession quickly: Aviva Rossner, a Jewish girl who wears her sexuality as easily as her gold chains and plunging angora sweaters. But within a few pages she spurns Bennett-Jones in favor of Seung Jung, a Korean-American senior on the swim team. Together Aviva and Seung develop such heated habits of public displays of affection that they become notorious at Auburn and a major thorn of bitterness in Bennett-Jones’s side.
Like A Separate Peace, The Virgins does shape up to be a potential classic, but not for the villainy of Bruce Bennett-Jones. In this engaging story of blossoming sexuality Erens has created the perfect incubator in which we can examine the various, troublesome ways teens navigate the new territory of their bodies. I believe it has the ability to draw in readers old and young, including my friend’s teenage son, now and possibly in generations to come. That may seem odd since the book is set in 1979, but that is the beauty of it. The novel can focus on the base essence of teenage sexuality without the distractions and complications that come of today’s texting, Facebook bullying, and an overall nonchalance about sex. How much, for instance, would Bennett-Jones daydream about his desire for Aviva and what’s under her sweaters if he can turn on a cellphone and find a picture of her naked breasts that she had tried to text to her boyfriend but ended up in the phones of the entire student body? We would have a totally different story.
Also a classic does more than tell a good story. A classic is usually written in a way that invites us to keep coming back to unpeel it, layer by layer, with subsequent readings. But in order for us to do that the author must build the layers into the book in the first place. The Virgins demonstrates this kind of careful, thoughtful, painstaking writing in the way Erens plays with point of view, develops her characters with a keen eye, and, of course the way she writes about sex.
Bennett-Jones, as mentioned earlier, is the first person narrator of The Virgins. In the traditional sense of this point of view, he should be limited to what he experiences and what characters share with him. But Erens gets around this by essentially making the whole book a Bennett-Jones production. The character informs us he is telling this story from the vantage point of adulthood “as a kind of restitution, the only type of penance I could then see to pay Aviva.” (93) He knows his limits, and where he has to fill in missing pieces by conjuring scenes in his imagination: “Let me recreate her journey.” (12) “I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.” (23)
At least Erens lets us know this upfront so it’s not the sleight of hand Ian McEwan performs in his novel Atonement. However we are very aware of how much Bennett-Jones is controlling the narrative—and how unreliable he might be. We know he has a flair for the theatrical: he directs both at Auburn Academy and in the adult life from which he tells his tale. “I am going to slow down the action now, relating this; I want to see it all again very clearly. Like a play being blocked—my stock-in-trade.” (15). He admits telling the story, “is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit.” (61)
Having this kind of narrator opens the door to some beautiful, contemplative writing. “She suspects that in the honeycomb of her conscious brain there do not, in fact, lie caverns of benevolence and fellow feeling. Rather, she expects there are evil things lurking there: rage, a lust for conquest, cruelty. Why would she want to loosen the chains?” (92) But at the same time I wondered if our narrator could be to blame for moments of tinny dialogue, especially between Bennett-Jones and Seung toward the end of the book. They just don’t sound like teenage boys.
“I’m not a person with a lot of conviction. There have been times when dying seemed important, but never important enough.”
Seung reaches for his dry sneakers and pulls out a joint he’s stashed in one. “Care to?” he asks.
“I pegged you as a toker, Bennett-Jones.”
“I thought I kept that a pretty good secret.”
“I have superb radar. But you do it yourself, on your own. That’s not good for you. It has to be a social thing. If you do it alone it turns you strange.”
“Thanks for the concern.” (248)
I have to do some work here and remind myself we are hearing Bennett-Jones’s record of events. Perhaps this is the way he remembers it—he likes to think of himself as a boy who used the word “conviction” and Seung would say “superb” like that. But it’s too much work in a pivotal moment. I want to leap over the uncomfortable dialogue to get to the action—maybe even the facts. Because it seems the results are the only things we can trust given Bennett-Jones’s dramatization. How those results came about might be quite another thing.
Erens creates characters that aren’t merely products of good description. Their physical features and, for some characters, how those features change over time are indicative of their inner lives. And this doesn’t simply mean that when they look good, they feel good. The features themselves have meaning. Aviva’s dark makeup, for instance, is her anchor to the real world. “She finds it almost impossible to resist checking herself to make sure that she is sufficiently vivid, not fading away. She half expects, each time she looks, to see nothing there.” (19) The invisibility she worries about most, though, has nothing to do with appearances. She realizes she may be a void, a kind of black hole empty of emotion. She can’t love and can’t be loved. “There is something within her, she is certain, that creates damage.” (195) It’s not clear where this idea comes from, why she feels this way, but she is desperate for Seung to prove her wrong.
Seung the swimmer skims the surface of everything. He seems content to play out his quiet rebel role as the second son who will never be good enough in his demanding Korean-American family. He doesn’t mind coming in second at home, in his schoolwork or at swim meets and often will do just enough to make a good showing but not enough to win. Seung indulges in recreational drugs because he thinks an altered mind state brings him closer to himself. “He has no family, no constricting allegiances; he is simply one golden child of the universe. He can see the suffering of each fellow creature like a brilliant steam rising from the pores, a nimbus terrible and beautiful at once. It’s the suffering that makes each person beautiful, like a bracelet, like a cage. He has enormous compassion for everyone, and the fact that the suffering will continue, that he can do nothing about it, does not unduly distress him.” (91)
Aviva becomes the one person Seung is willing to go all out for, much to his parents’ chagrin. He wrings out all the love and compassion he has to give, but by the end of the book he devolves into “looking like a man made of separate parts that do not hang together, like a body that has died and is activated by something external.” (227)
Erens saves most of her layering for Bennett-Jones who is at once complicated and shallow. Bennett-Jones knows himself “to be this squat, impotent body, this restless, angry mind.” (37) He has nowhere to channel this energy safely and knows it can make him unfit to be around people. The one time he gives way to it he nearly rapes Aviva in the Auburn boathouse. It’s this anger Bennett-Jones seems to be contemplating when he directs a school production of Macbeth and casts a boy who is “short and round and blond-curled like me,” (101) in the title role. The boy plunges into the depths of the role and is so successful that Bennett-Jones observes, “I saw what he had brought up in himself, a true mean troubled desire to kill. He frightened himself, the poor boy. It made the play. People shifted in their seats, uncomfortable.” After the performance, “For a while no one went near and he remained entirely alone.” (102)
Erens draws this kind of character well. The Understory, her first novel and a little-known gem of a book featured another quiet man of latent violence. But that character knew enough to stay detached from the world in the New York City rent-controlled apartment he illegally takes over after his uncle dies. Bennett-Jones, being younger and in the daily spotlight of high school, casts himself differently with, he thinks, disastrous results. I say, “he thinks” because I wonder how much he really had to do with the closing actions of the novel. So here is another layer to unearth: is Bennett-Jones’s anger his true motivation for telling the story the way that he does? At times it’s as if he is forcing himself into the narrative because he can feel it’s moving on without him, like a train leaving the station. He comments on “the number of ways there are to be left out, to be abandoned.” (170). I would even go so far as to say I don’t believe he was as culpable for anything as he seems to think in the novel’s closing chapters. He wants to see himself as more important; that he knows things no one else knows. But is this really the case? He will forever be the true riddle of this book.
Erens takes a similar, multi-layer approach in writing about sex in The Virgins. She holds to the visceral, but her language isn’t overly graphic or vulgar. In fact there’s even a romanticized flavor to her descriptions of desire. She explains her reasoning for this in the words of Bennett-Jones: “…don’t underestimate the metaphysical yearnings of a seventeen-year-old. That’s the secret of teenage sex, I think. For none of us was it really about asses and crotches, sucking cock or licking pussy. It’s adults who so often think in those terms, with such a lack of imagination. We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being consumed, saved, transfigured.” (51)
So it’s this aesthetic Erens uses when writing scenes that can best be described as foreplay—action leading up to sex or characters contemplating the experience of sex. The results are mesmerizing. Aviva expects “to dissolve now, to expand. She is going to know, completely, how to live.” (67) And during a tryst with Seung outdoors: “She unbuttons his shirt, warming her hands on his chest. He leans his head against the dirty concrete wall. She never fails to be stirred by this gesture of his, the way he bares his throat to her, like a dog acknowledging the stronger creature in a fight. It strikes her to her depths. She kisses him gently, then imperiously, crawling onto his lap and holding him fiercely around the waist with her legs.” (107-108)
But the sex act itself Erens writes more directly, with an almost clinical accuracy. Since the characters have pinned so much on the act, and the story depends on it, Erens is careful in her description so the reader does not miss what does—and doesn’t—happen in each instance of desperate groping seeking conclusion. “The moment the tip of his cock touches the thatch of curly hair something pulls back in him again; he shrivels internally and then externally.” (67)
By the way, there’s a scene in the book about a classroom discussion that turns to sexuality. The teacher recommends a book called The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Aviva checks the book out of the library, but I’m willing to bet Erens was really offering a footnote here for how she developed the novel’s intimate encounters. Does one need a reference to write about sex? No, but I would like to think the Erens is not just writing about sex—she’s seeking to connect the sex act with humanity, with the realness of who these character are. A moment of failure, as described above, is not just an embarrassment. It is “the death of one’s ideal soul.” (51)
With such thoughtful writing and attention to detail Erens keeps her book relevant which is what a classic wants to be. It tells us something about ourselves now and succeeding generations can also come to it and still discover the novel speaking to them. The narrative is not frozen in time by its language or its references. The characters and their situation stand eternal. So The Virgins does qualify as a new classic and students of the form will read it again and again, but perhaps with fewer questions from impatient teenage boys as to why we do so.
Remember that couple at your high school or college who were always making out in public, who became notorious, perhaps envied, then eventually reviled, for “doing it” a lot more than anyone else? But were they? Or was the truth a lot more complicated than it appeared on the surface? Pamela Erens’ novel The Virgins (Tin House Books, 2013) is impressive for many reasons—strong narrative writing, suspenseful plotting and fully human characters—but perhaps the best thing about it is her incredible knowledge of sex from the point of view of both genders. I regret this novel was not available to me when I was sixteen; however, it’s never too late to figure out what was truly happening at one of life’s most critical junctures.
The Golden Couple at the center of The Virgins have plenty of sexual difficulty, to which all readers will painfully relate. Aviva Rossner, away at boarding school, is newly bold. At her old school she was practically invisible but no more; she’s developed style in order to make a place in the world for herself in order to compete with her superstar professor mother (an unforgettable minor character). And Aviva meets her perfect complement in the athletic, Korean-American Seung Jung. Together, they manifest extreme sexual heat, looking all but naked as they make out for hours all over campus (and, eventually, in a hotel stairway in New York City).
So maybe you’re thinking: another clichéd coming-of-age story set at a boarding school of the late seventies: just another thinly-disguised autobiographical love triangle? We might think so for a few pages until the narrator—horny, entitled Bruce Bennett-Jones—driven a little crazy by the sexy Aviva, sexually assaults her, shocking himself before the feisty victim defends herself very well. Afterward, Bruce knows he’ll never have another chance for a real relationship with Aviva, so when the good-looking but otherwise average-in-every way Seung takes up with her, Bruce is relegated to watching, and that’s when things get really interesting. He’s beyond voyeurism, for, while he witnesses as much of the Golden Couple’s behavior as anyone else on the small campus, he can’t know the intimate details of their sex life together—so he invents what he can’t know. Thus, it’s through the imagination rather than senses of this highly-articulate “theater guy,” now much older and looking back, that we receive the public and private details of the couple’s relationship (which he tells us early on, ends in tragedy).
The analysis of sex and power afforded by this point of view is highly effective. Bruce is the perfect vehicle to dissect the dynamics of Seung and Aviva’s sexual relationship with almost-clinical precision—and in the process completely reveal the dysfunction of these two doomed young lovers. Who among us, male or female, doesn’t remember what it was like to yearn to lose one’s virginity, only to find the experience far from romantic, and ourselves far from competent? And that’s the gist of it: these lovers, for all their steam and apparent affection, if not love for each other, lack the ability to consummate, although everyone on campus assumes otherwise.
It’s painful—yet instructive and enlightening—to observe this volatile relationship, along with Bruce. As he says before we’re fifty pages into the novel, teen sex is much more about “metaphysical yearnings” than it is about “asses and crotches . . .” We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured. To . . . do it wrong was to experience . . . the death of one’s ideal soul.” That could easily stand as the book’s thesis, letting the readers know what’s at stake. Erens delivers on her implied promise to probe the sexual psyche, and the events she dramatizes are never merely prurient, coarse or clichéd. Her many revelations and insights ring sadly true.
To illustrate with one of Bruce’s fairly minor—but spot on—insights about kissing and talking: “ . . . a tongue pushing deep inside you was as fucked as you could possibly be . . .” and maybe even “more than anything that came later.” As for the talking that comes after: “Without it they would turn on each other, not be able to stand the pleasure.” Such statements, offered by the mature Bruce, help us understand a ritual as old as time itself, but made so much more complicated by today’s crazy age—and worse than complicated, dangerous. Knowing the Golden Couple is doomed does not lessen the suspense at all, for the tragic conclusion is as surprising as it is inevitable. Another great satisfaction is that Erens doesn’t rush this story with so much at stake but gives herself ample time to develop the denouement following the sad climax.
The Virgins will surely fascinate and interest all lovers of literary fiction—but writers especially will be interested to see how she pulls off this difficult point of view challenge. If we hate the narrator, the book doesn’t work nearly as well: we’ll ignore any wisdom Bruce finds in looking back at his and the other characters’ horrific mistakes. Readers could be forgiven for wondering whether Bruce is merely the author’s mouthpiece, speculating ad nauseum about the couple with whom he’s obsessed. However, he plays an active role in the events leading to the tragedy. Significantly, I found the would-be rapist more sympathetic than not, willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings, accept the consequences and even regret them, recognizing himself as “someone filled with ugly and perhaps uncontrollable impulses.” It’s clear the grown-up Bruce would’ve behaved much differently if he’d had access to any of the hard-won wisdom he possesses now. Others might have a lot more trouble than I did forgiving his worst shortcomings.
I can’t recall a recent novel in which I was so thoroughly engaged as The Virgins. The fictionist in me argued with the narrator when he says that telling someone’s story “is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit.” I agree completely with devotion but . . . sadism? The people in my stories mostly tell and show me what they want to do. They mostly insist; I mostly submit—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I suspect that, regardless of what her character thinks, Pamela Erens wouldn’t, either.
Many, many years have passed since I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I read it in its Latvian translation, a young writer eager to learn from the masters—and the Danish writer Hamsun was that. It was a novel about nothing, really. No car chases, no maddening mysteries, no ravishing love stories, no epiphanies. It was a simple story of survival—a homeless man coping with hunger—but it has remained with me all these decades later while so many other books I’ve read have faded into oblivion. It was a book touched with greatness.
I recall Hamsun’s Hunger now because in reading the slim novel called The Understory by Pamela Erens, winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize, I sensed the same effect. Yes, the same touch of literary greatness. This, too, was a story about nothing. It is simplicity itself; not even a story, but an “understory.” The story behind the story, you might say, the diving deep into the mind and heart and soul of a man. There is little action, almost all the recording of observation, the gradual coiling and tightening of a spring, and all leading up to a stunning conclusion—that one moment of action—that is the perfection coming together of all that we have read to that point.
As in Hamsun’s masterpiece, we experience truth, as a human being experiences truth that is found in the minutiae of the every day. Life is like this, after all. The earth shattering upheavals and volcanic happenings are remarkable enough, easy to nail down on paper, memorable (or not) without even trying, but genius enters when one can create reality sharper almost than reality itself. Erens follows this haggard, lonely man in his unremarkable every day without missing a detail, and so brings him into the room where we sit, brings us into his room where he lives his solitary life, and lets us taste of it. He is poor, he is alone, he is a child abandoned by his parents through a car accident that took their lives, and so has learned to live in this quiet, unobtrusive way. He lives a life that happens mostly inside his mind. He reads and mulls over what he has read as a gourmet savors every bite of an exquisite meal. Indeed, when he is evicted from his home—an apartment where he has lived for 15 years as something of an imposter of his deceased uncle of similar name on a $500 monthly stipend left to him in a will—he wonders how is it that we do not value the thinkers in our society? Only the doers. Someone has to read all the books? Someone has to think all the thoughts? He is that someone.
Even when something does happen in this man’s days, it moves in a kind of slow motion, giving us time to note all the details of the scene, evoke the emotions one might have living the moment in real time rather than sound bite. We watch the building burn. We watch him resist leaving the ashen shell of his home, living among that ash when all others have moved elsewhere. We see him creep into odd emotions of need and want, not falling in love, but more a kind of cell by cell transforming into a man who wants another man. His presence in the room, just that. We settle into the cramped corners of his brain as he becomes obsessed.
So there it is, all of it, after all, but without the distraction of special effects. There the story of survival, the story of loss, and grief, the love story, too. Distilled into effervescent purity. A moment in the abbey, where he takes refuge for a while, is fully as remarkable as a moment of encountering human need at its most base:
Night is the worst time. After the long regimentation of the day, the enforced silences, the men want to talk. At first it doesn’t matter what about: TV, movies, travel, jobs. I lie on my side on my mattress as the words pool around me, reciting to myself the botanical classifications for peach, cherry, apple. Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Rosales, Rosaceae… I smell the smell of other bodies: stale skin, flatulence, cologne. I long to open the windows and let the fresh air sweep the smells away, sweep the bodies away, too. Gradually one man drops out of the conversation, then another. Soon there will be only two men left speaking. And these two—they are not the same two every night—will drop their voices, speak in an intimate murmur. Perhaps they are only gossiping about one of the monks. Perhaps they are complaining about the food. But no, there is a reticence that lets me know that they are trying, clumsily, to reach each other. (27)
He is obsessed with two. Two in connection, twins, kindred souls, brothers, lovers, even as he himself is profoundly one. This solitary man who cannot connect even in a crowd, eventually implodes, and explodes, and the sense of following him through this process is a literary meditation I will long not forget. It is for this kind of fine literature that I hunger all my reading life, and find all too rarely.
The Withdrawal Method, Pasha Malla, Soft Skull Press
Pasha Malla’s cleverly titled collection The Withdrawal Method features protagonists, most of them men, who feel themselves to be in emotional retreat. They have happenstance jobs, partners they don’t understand, family members they don’t speak to anymore. In “Timber on the Wheel of Everyone,” a man whose young son is ill with cancer lives largely in a fantasy world in which his selfless derring-do makes him a hero to his son and a scourge to his ex-wife. An eighteenth-century Austrian courtier decides that he is “a man trapped irrevocably in a realm of logic, distant from the enigmas of human emotion.” The protagonist of “The Slough” becomes repelled by his girlfriend after she reveals that she has found a way to shed her skin like a snake.
Malla, a Canadian who was recently awarded the Giller Prize, his country’s top literary award, for this collection, is refreshingly unpredictable, injecting magical realism into some tales while letting others unfold in a conventional universe. Even the more conventional stories, however, possess a quirkiness that makes them memorable. In “Pet Therapy,” a young man works in a children’s hospital making sure that the Pet Therapy Ward bonobo doesn’t rape the Pet Therapy goats. The bullied fourth-grader in “Long Short Short Long” is convinced that his teacher is sending him secret Morse Code messages.
Children appear in many of these tales, orphaned, neglected, or ill. They have more resourcefulness and energy than their adult counterparts, but are equally aware of some precariousness inherent in the order of things. In the powerful “Big City Girls,” a seven-year-old boy and his older sister and her friends play a sex game on a long, dull school snow day. Malla captures the way in which children intuit the entwined excitement and violence of adult sexuality:
Alex was on top of the girl. He held his [toy pirate’s] hook to her throat.
Can you be Jordan Knight when you rape me? said Heather’s voice in the dark.
Okay, what do I say?
Just be slow and nice, she said.
Okay, said Alex. Okay.
… I guess I’m dead now, said Heather. Where do I go?
The ways of men and women together are not pretty in Malla’s world. Sex as often creates distance as connection. Malla is particularly good on the naked dislike that can develop between long-term lovers. In “The Slough,” the main character is teasing his girlfriend by nudging her with his foot while she studies for a class. She tells him to stop:
He nudged again and she looked at him, exasperated. “What?”
“I love you,” he said.
She stared at him. “And?”
“And do you love me?”
“No, I hate you.”
For all their fierceness, these are sly, leisurely stories that don’t readily signal where they’re heading or the effect the author may mean them to have, though in retrospect they drop hints suggesting that their surface aimlessness is deceptive. Malla is a painstaking literary mechanic, and funny, too, with a great ear for colloquial speech. The deepest registers of emotion are reached in “Big City Girls,” “Respite” (which unsentimentally describes a writers’s volunteer visits to the home of a dying child), “Timber on the Wheel of Everyone,” and “Dizzy When You Look Down In,” a story about two brothers, one seriously ill with diabetes. Dizzy, the diabetic brother, is undergoing an operation to have a foot amputed; his well sibling, the narrator, waits in a hospital lounge trying to make sense of the pieces of Dizzy’s life. A gifted high school basektball player, Dizzy deliberately sabotaged both his academic future and his physical health. Why? Was it his radical politics? His resentment over being diabetic? His propensity for getting stoned? We are never told for sure, and don’t need to be. Who could truly explain such a thing anyhow? The mysteries that make so many of Malla’s characters withdraw, overwhelmed by life, are mysteries that enrich his stories and encourage us to more than one reading. I think Malla knows a little more than he lets his readers in on, but I appreciate his sophisticated ambiguities. Closure is overrated.
I suspect David Shields would appreciate my reaction to Reality Hunger: I was angered and threatened by it, and I couldn’t let it go. I wanted either to be overwhelmed by its truths (I wasn’t), or able to dismiss it quickly (I couldn’t). If you haven’t already read some rave review or stinging pan of the book, it’s a collection of 618 numbered passages, divided into twenty-six chapters each with a thematic title (e.g., “Memory,” In Praise of Brevity,” “Thinking”). The subtitle of Reality Hunger is “A Manifesto,” and the overwhelming majority of the passages argue, overtly or covertly, for some feature of Shields’s premise: that the future of literature lies in the technique of collage–or, to use a more contemporary and all-inclusive term, the mash-up. Shields is bored, he tells us, with the traditional novel, bored with the novel-like narratives of much nonfiction. These forms, he feels, screen out real life rather than plumb it and present it to us so that we can feel it; they work like machines without a human intelligence behind them. If we want reality, if we want true art, we need the fragmented, the happenstance, the self-conscious. The mash-up.
Mash-up is not just the matter but the method of this book. The most controversial part of Reality Hunger’s publication has been Shields’s use of other people’s words–not, as is common, to illustrate an occasional apercu of his own, but to bulk out nearly the entire content of his book. Perhaps one in five passages are Shields’s own. The rest are from literary critics, authors, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, artists, and miscellaneous others. As Shields has mentioned many times in interviews, he wanted to publish the book without citing any of his sources, but was prevented from doing so by Random House’s lawyers. The citations therefore appear in punishingly small print at the back of the book, and with dotted lines near the sewn signature, so that readers can–as Shields urges them to–scissor them out. In a brief note prefacing the citations, Shields writes: “Stop; don’t read any farther.”
“It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel),” Shield says of his book in passage number 5, an early bit of authorial instruction. The reader (assuming she doesn’t ignore Shields’s request and jump to the back) will never know whether any given passage was written by Shields or somebody else, and Shields believes it doesn’t matter. As he later makes clear, what is meaningful to him is not the origin of any particular comment but the way comments “talk” to and with each other. Combined, they become the speech of some uber-persona, some transcendent speaker who is not precisely David Shields but who has been brought into being by him. Shields devotes several pages of Reality Hunger to a discussion of the history and role of the DJ in music, and he clearly sees himself as the DJ of this book, weaving together “tracks” from the work of other writers to create a certain kind of performance. (In fact, even the tracks are edited–in Number 296, Shields confesses that nearly all were truncated or reworded “at least a little.” For instance, if you do flip to the citations, you find that passage 5, just quoted, was not written by Shields but by a combination of Roland Barthes and Michael Dirda, book critic for the Washington Post critic. However, it unmistakably lays out Shields’s position.)
As a novelist interested in issues of persona, I can’t help but be intrigued by Shields’s method, which opens up new possibilities for speaking, for narrative voice. At the same time, it creates some obvious complications. In the first forty-some passages, Reality Hunger’s narrator gives us a brief history of the development of writing and of the essay. But if this narrator is akin to “a character in a novel,” then why should we take anything he says as true? Perhaps he has simply made up the fact that “Writing began around 3200 b.c.,” or that the essay had its roots in collections of aphorisms assembled by the Sumerians. Oh, but Shields has told us the narrator is a character in a novel “minus the novel”–so presumably we are supposed to accept this book as not-a-fiction. We are meant to believe the speaking “I.” But by this point we might feel justifiably irritated. Can Shields really have it both ways?
By the terms Shields himself sets up, there’s no reason for us to accept anything in Reality Hunger as sincere, or as an expression of Shields’s actual point of view. However, I’ve read and watched many interviews in which Shields discusses the book, and it’s clear he does want us to read him straight. I’ll therefore take the facts in the book as facts, the opinions as by and large Shields’s opinions, whether he originally wrote them or not. But that I have to decide to do this, have to make the choice to trust the intent here, has implications when it comes to one of Shields’s pet notions, that there is no real difference between fiction and nonfiction. He  has some interesting things to say about the blurred boundaries between the two. Number 213:
In all the reconstructive arts–forensics, forensic anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, art restoration, fields into which scholars have put enormous work, defining methods, freedoms, and boundaries as they strive to fill in the blanks of history–people make the best educated guess as to what “really” happened. Archaeologists imagine the buildings that once stood upon the foundations they unearth. Forensic specialists imagine the faces that masked old skulls. An art restorer “paints over” a painting to bring it “back to the original.” A police sketch of a suspected criminal is routinely derived from the imaginations of several witnesses. Similarly, imagined stories have an important place in nonfiction.
In Number 389, Shields  reverses our usual understanding of truth in fiction and nonfiction:
The reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged by epistemological insecurity. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what really happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what’s going on in his imagination. When James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is “overreacting” to what she’s seeing. James’s report is a true report. The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the rock that Samuel Johnson kicked when, asked how he would refute Bishop Berkeley’s notion that matter doesn’t exist, he struck “his foot with might force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, and said, `I refute it thus.’” We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we’re almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s.
These are significant insights. It is, in fact, impossible ever to completely purify nonfiction of fiction, because the autobiography, the biography, the memoir, the history, and the journalistic account all rely on memory (the author’s or his sources’s), and memory is astonishingly selective and faulty. Point taken. But when you think about it, Shields is exploiting here a literary history in which the two genres of fiction and nonfiction are intuitively understood to be distinct. It is because we do believe that nonfiction is not “made up” that Shields can write a book in which he says there’s strictly no such thing as nonfiction while at the same time expecting us to believe that he’s not lying when he tells us how the art of DJ’ing developed, or that he, Shields, can’t read novels anymore. Something tells me that Shields might not actually be so thrilled about a world in which the eradication of genre was as thorough as he advocates. He  thinks the James Frey brouhaha over A Million LIttle Pieces was a big yawn. Number 116:
I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world.
I’m sure Oprah would have appreciated that. But does Shields really want a world in which, say, a politician writing a memoir claims that the family of Jews next door mixed the blood of murdered Christian children with their Passover meal? Should we not mind this because the politician is just trying to create a person who is meaner and more filled with life than he really is? (Look at how scrappy he was, what evils he faced down!) There is a value to designating certain kinds of works as nonfiction, and then watchdogging the category for all we’re worth. Nonfiction may never meet the ideal of absolute truth, but that ideal is one we must defend.
Shields appears to be less interested in truth than in “truth.” He wants to celebrate a kind of wisdom literature that combines elements of memoir, essay, thinking-on-the-page, and aphorism. He’s upfront about the fact that he expects literature to solve problems, or try to. He likes following a writing human consciousness as it wrestles with such enduring human topics as mortality, illness, identity, and love. To do this well, Shields believes, that writing consciousness has to get at “reality” and shed the dead forms of plotting and pacing that readers have come to enjoy and expect–the Freytag’s Triangle of rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement that would-be novelists learn to emulate in their MFA classes. The very first sentence of Reality Hunger claims: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” It’s easy to think of examples: Flaubert making the ordinary longings and frustrations of a bourgeois wife the centerpiece of Madame Bovary; Virginia Woolf finding the means to pin the fluid shifts of thought and perception to the page.
But Shields divulges in his very title that he’s hungry for still more reality–the breakthroughs of the realists and the modernists have become cliche and unable (so he believes) to move readers any longer. So what kinds of reality are as yet untouched? Shields is not terribly precise about this, but in Number 3 he mentions “`raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional,” offering the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination as a for-instance. He goes on to cite “randomness” and “openness to accident and serendipity,” as markers of reality-infused art, as well as (less persuasively) “artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation, an overly literal tone . . . self-reflexivity . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.”
These, Shields says, signal the art that people are hungry for today. He names various artists and works he believes have succeeded in this amalgam, and Reality Hunger is a wonderful source book in this respect. The poet Anne Carson, the writer Lydia Davis, and Proust come up repeatedly. Other works that earn Shields’s approval: Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Lauren Slater’s Lying, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, anything by Geoff Dyer, the films of Sophie Calle, the comic routines of Sarah Sliverman, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Nicholson Baker’s U & I, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s.
No question that amalgam-art is all around us, most pervasively in popular music and reality TV. Even the more scripted television shows reveal signs of reality hunger: e.g., Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David appears as “himself,” and The Office, which features camera work, pacing, and actor sidebars meant to make episodes play like a documentary. Tina Fey’s impressions of Sarah Palin were spectacularly engaging in part because they were only slight reworkings of words Palin actually spoke in interviews.
Shields believes our reality-mania is due to the over-produced nature of our world. “Bored with the airbrushed perfection of Friends,” (Number 308) “we want to watch real people stuck on tropical islands without dental floss.” But the more we get “reality” into our art, the more that art necessarily fragments. Number 70:
As a work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art–underprocessed, underproduced–splinters and explodes.
This does not worry Shields. On the contrary, traditional fiction–extended narratives featuring long successions of paragraphs more or less seamlessly assembled into the larger chunks of chapters–almost always elicits from him a tone of sneering impatience. Number 319:
Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though–standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night–flies at us in bright splinters. 
I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition.
As a moon rocket ascends, different stages of the engine do what they must to accelerate the capsule. Each stage of the engine is, successively, jettisoned until only the capsule is left with the astronauts on its way to the moon. In linear fiction, the whole structure is accelerating toward the epiphanic moment, but I still feel that the writer and the reader can jettison the pages leading to the epiphany. They serve a purpose and then fall into the Pacific Ocean, so I’m left with Gabriel Conroy and his falling faintly, faintly falling, and I’m heading to the moon in the capsule, but the rest of the story has fallen away. In collage, every fragment is a capsule: I’m on my way to the moon on every page. 
And one more (though there are numerous similar examples to choose from), number 375:
My reaction to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being? The point, such as it is, often seems to me woefully or willfully obscure in even the most well-made stories. I’ve become an impatient writer and reader: I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news to be delivered now.
Ah. Here we learn what’s at the bottom of Shields’s dislike of fiction (despite the fact that he has himself written three novels)–the reason why, as he puts it, he couldn’t read the novel The Corrections “if my life depended on it” (Number 594). He wants a “point.” He wants “news.” Surely Shields recognizes that this is not primarily what fiction does, what’s it’s for. It’s not for anything, actually, but those of us who love it, who can’t live without it (couldn’t give it up if our lives depended on it) read it because it is an experience, a communion with other consciousnesses (the implicit narrator’s, the characters’s), a totality that exists in its own right. There is no single epiphany toward which fiction leads, just as the justification for a symphony is not in the final chord. We read for the complex music of the whole.
Shields offers much evidence in Reality Hunger that he is simply numb to fiction’s pleasures–to its, may I say, reality. Numbness seems to be something he is constantly fighting against. He returns several times to the Friends-Leads-to-Reality-TV notion. “Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world,” he writes in Number 239, “we yearn for the `real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication–autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter.” Number 310: “We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else’s joy or woe.”  In a recent review of a memoir for The New York Times Book Review, Shields wrote that the author was “trying to make himself, make us, feel something, feel anything, do whatever he can to vanquish the numbness.”
Whence comes Shields’s pressing sense of unreality? Why does he think it requires so much work to feel? Yes, if you watch a lot of music videos or TV you can grow nauseated by the artificiality and the crude manipulation of our emotions and senses. But outside forces have always helped manufacture human beings’s sense of the real. There was no time in recorded history when human beings had an unmediated experience of the sun, the stars, their gods, sex, love, or anything else. Before mass media told us how to think and feel about these things, it was the Church, the sect, the tribe.
I live amid the same crap Shields does, but my life is real to me. I think most people’s lives are real to them. I have two children, and, caramba, are they real! They experience hunger, they need clothes and attention, and certain things, external and internal (thunderstorms, their own rages) hurt or frighten them. My own body is real, and my breath is, too, and the trees outside my window and the weather (however currently degraded by human beings). As I read on in Reality Hunger I became more and more confused about Shields’s use of the word “reality.” Never does he give a clear definition. Right at the get-go (Number 1), he acknowledges that, “Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks,” but then he goes on blithely to employ it to mean . . . what? When he writes, in Number 207, “What I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported,” what can he possibly mean? Does “real” mean plants and cars and people? Does it mean what’s on the news at six p.m.? The thoughts we think, the dreams we dream at night? Eventually I had to come to the conclusion that “reality” means anything that doesn’t bore–or numb–David Shields. And since, as he confesses (number 587, number 439), he has a tendency to privilege the abstract over the concrete, a great deal of imaginative literature is going to bore him.
I claim a larger definition for reality, a much larger one, and fiction can nest comfortably inside it. (Isn’t fiction, in fact, “the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported”?) If some people today don’t read fiction, it’s not because it doesn’t address the “real.” Fiction addresses the same things it’s always addressed: human character, the promptings of the soul, ethical dilemmas, yearning, dread, failure, success, society, solitude. These things are profoundly, essentially real. And there have always been many people who do not read fiction. In earlier eras, it was because stories about the doings of ordinary human beings were considered frivolous and uninstructive: serious people read religious and philosophical texts. Today many people don’t read fiction because of competition from so may other sources: television, DVDs, iPods, Twitter, the Internet. But even now, millions of novels are sold, and even if they are not all of the highest quality, they attest to the enduring human hunger for narrative and “reality” both. I like the way David Foster Wallace once put it in an essay (“Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”):
Human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.
Narrative is, to some degree, our reality. We are meaning-making and sense-making creatures, and our existences take place in time. If you have time, you automatically have story. Tolstoy and George Eliot, both of whom Shields finds tiresome, are masters at this meaning-making, and they are masters also of tone and music and language, and that is why they still provide the most complex joys, unease, and solace. Turning to a different medium, perhaps a home movie is more “real” than, say, Raging Bull, in the sense that the people in the home movie do not act for a living and are presumably not following a script (though we all know everyone “acts” in one way or another for a camera). But that’s a very nominal kind of reality. When I watch Raging Bull, I know that Robert de Niro wasn’t ever world middleweight boxing champion, nor did he really marry an 18-year-old girl named Vickie whom he beat and cheated on. Yet I’m moved to the core by the rough beauty of the imagery, by the unfolding of a sibling relationship over time, by the delight human beings can take in being alive, by the revelation too of how cruel they can be. Is Raging Bull artificial? Of course. That’s why it’s called art. But surely its tones, its depths, represent a reality as real or more real than that of a home movie.
I won’t go on and on in a defense of narrative or plot. Its virtues are obvious to anyone who acknowledges that choices and events have consequences . . . or who simply appreciates plot’s architectural aspects. That plot can become mechanical is inarguable, and the handling of plot is one of the (many) things that distinguish bad art from good. In good art plot embodies larger truths about cause and effect, or even the absence of expected cause and effect. It registers our desire for meaning–and a search for meaning isn’t stupid even in a world understood to function via the random action of quantum particles. If I’ve loved my husband for twenty years and then he dies, that feels like a conclusion to something, even if clever folks would say endings are an illusion. That is a part of my life that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even literature with a tired plot can have glories that well justify the creakiness of the scaffolding. Shakespeare famously used some awfully tired plots, and they provide simple, mythic backgrounds against which he can work his intricate magic.
Let me say now that I greatly enjoy and admire many of the books and writers Shields champions. Lydia Davis regularly achieves marvels in three paragraphs. Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, which is recommended on Shields’s website, is a powerful, compressed, poetic memoir. I’m a Proust and Dillard and Duras and Nicholson Baker and Coetzee fan. Their works are those in which, as Shields puts it, “the armature of overt drama is dispensed with, and we’re left with a deeper drama, the real drama: an active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive.” (Number 432.) But there are times when one needs something that can be missing from these kinds of works, and that is the robust presence of other people. (There are robust characters aplenty in In Search of Lost Time, but note that Proust’s narrator in that work functions for long stretches as a third-person narrator.)
We cannot escape our own subjectivity, but we live in a world peopled with others. In fact, we become ourselves only via our interactions with those others. Even the strongest account of the active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive will deny the reader the experience of, say, one particular imagined Choctaw Indian removed from her land during the 1831 Trail of Tears, or of an unstable Russian student who decides to murder a local pawnbroker. And why do I need to see through the eyes of a murderous Russian student? In a day-to-day sort of way, I don’t. And yet I’m hungry to.
Fiction brings us powerful experiences of other human consciousnesses, and a far greater range of such consciousnesses than can be found in memoir. This is not just a matter of the characters we encounter in stories. Even more transformative, perhaps, is a reader’s contact with a given narrator. Whether in third person or first person, the strongest fiction speaks in an idiosyncratic voice, channelling a persona that is neither strictly author nor character. This voice embodies a stance toward (yes) reality; it is a way of ordering experience. It says, all on its own, “this is the reality of how we live now.” Has Shields not noticed? Has he never read such contemporary writers of unmistakable voice as George Saunders or Cynthia Ozick or Deborah Eisenberg? “Traditional” writers each have their own unmistakable voice as well. Tolstoy does not sound or think like George Eliot who does not sound or think like Dickens or Henry James or Wallace Stegner or Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Dee.
Note too that in even in the works Shields counterposes to the bad-traditional, the authors write their own words. Duras, Coetzee, Davis–they’ve all apparently decided that the resources of the English or French or whatever language are capacious enough to allow them unique ways to express their sense of reality. Shields  dismisses worries that mash-ups without attribution are plagiaristic by insisting (Number 101) that all literature is based on “telling the same stories over and over again”:
When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to `match’ a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we `matched’ any of the Times’s words–even the most banal of phrases–it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.
But sentences are important, and sentences transmit the unique DNA of a writer: shape, rhythm, perspective. Good literature is our means of experiencing the subjective, singular voice that reaches us in singular sentences. There is something eerie about a book lacking a coherent and localizable narrator. We look to literature for a relationship of intimacy–not with the author per se, but with his or her narrator/avatar. In the nineteenth century, that avatar was generally broad-minded, competent and trustworthy, occasionally pompous but usually genuinely wise; in the twentieth and twenty-first, it is less wise than wiseacre, sharply insightful but rather self-loathing. We connect passionately to these avatars: reading is still a one-to-one relationship, even if the “one” on the other side is a persona and not a flesh and blood creature. To complain that literature is always “telling the same stories over and over again” is like complaining that babies are always born with two arms and two legs. Each book, like each child, re-instantiates the miracle of life.
Reality Hunger, even while championing the “active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive,” has not explained how a collage literature could avoid denying us the singular human consciousness literature has traditionally brought us. Not to mention that collage is inherently limited as a form. As computer scientist Jaron Lanier puts it in his recent book You Are Not a Gadget, a culture which relies too heavily on sampling “is “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Reality Hunger has three epitaphs. The last is, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” (Here the originator of the phrase is cited. It is Graham Greene.) In an interview Shields did with the literary magazine Salt Hill, he claimed that his book is “an anti-manifesto manifesto. The book constantly undermines itself, quotes against itself, works to question its own premises, etc. I’d hate it if it were a straight manifesto.”
Of all the things Shields says (or “says”) in Reality Hunger, this one baffles me the most. His other statements are arguable, a matter of interpretation and nuance. This one is simply not true. I found maybe two passages in the book that directly question or contradict Shields’s primary point of view. There are sentences in which he regards himself with some irony, but that is not the same thing genuine self-questioning. The chapters entitled “Contradiction” and “Doubt” contain aphorisms such as “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings” (Number 405) and “We’re only certain (`certain only’?) about what we don’t understand” (Number 411), but Shields doesn’t have mixed feelings about his topic. Reality Hunger is indeed a manifesto. Shields has taken his own imperviousness to fiction, his own preference for abstraction, and his own excitement about collage, and turned these into a proclamation that fiction is a played-out genre (or non-genre) and that only brevity, silence and mash-up can represent our lives today. Shields doesn’t appear to consider that so-called traditional fiction critiques collage art just as deeply as it is critiqued by it. Had he done so, he might have allowed other voices to join his collage, or he might have decided, with greater humility, to write an apologia, or defense of his chosen art, rather than a manifesto. But Reality Hunger: A Defense would surely have garnered far less attention than Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.
Reality Hunger riles one up, gets the adrenaline flowing, forces one to examine one’s reading and writing, one’s very idea of one’s project. This is a good thing. There are many sentences and paragraphs filled with challenge and insight. I underlined aplenty. Go to the book and grapple with it. Let it catch you out at all your old tricks. And then think what an even better and more lasting book it would have been if David Shields had not been so very certain.
1. Actually, this is a writer named Bonnie Rough, in an essay in Iron Horse Literary Review. In this article, I’ll refer to the writer of quoted passages as Shields, in deference to the persona he employs, but I will footnote it when the writer is in fact someone else. I read Reality Hunger twice–once the way Shields wanted me to, once freely looking up the citations at the back.
2. the critic and journalist Janet Malcolm
3. Alice Marshall, in an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Space Between.”
4. Lance Olsen, 10:01
5. Nina Michelson in an unpublished manuscript entitled “Silence and Music”
6. Steve Almond, Not That You Asked
7. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Annals of Culture,” New Yorker