How Literature Saved My Life
David Shields’s books have the power to change the way you approach all art.
What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to most of us: birth, love, bad driver’s license photos, death. What separates us is how each of us thinks about what happens to us. That’s what I want to hear.
Building on Reality Hunger’s polemical call for the lyrical essay—a blending of fiction and fact and autobiography and fraud—How Literature Saved My Life presents an ambivalence about damn near everything (just see the bit where Shields first compares himself to the author Ben Lerner, then to George W. Bush) and in so doing, creates a piece of literature that illustrates the process of how Shields approaches literature, how this has evolved, how he thinks about thinking.
In some ways, Shields is like Nicholas Mosley plus Gregory Bateson plus the 21st Century.
I don’t want to read out of duty. There are hundreds of books in the history of the world that I love to death. I’m trying to stay awake and not bored and not rote. I’m trying to save my life.
What I love about Shit My Dad Says is the absence of space between the articulation and the embodiment of the articulation. The father, Samuel, is trying to teach his son that life is only blood and bones. The son is trying to express to his father his bottomless love and complex admiration. Nothing more. Nothing less.
One of the things that I love about Shields’s program is that it puts so much emphasis on the narratorial “I” in a way that completely reframes how one approaches literature.
Another thing I love is the way he wants to shatter the genre boundaries . . . actually, that’s kind of bullshit. It’s a bit grander and more pedestrian than that—Shields doesn’t believe in boundaries confining types of writing into separate categories. Writers should use everything at their disposal to express the way they think about the things they think about. In some ways, it’s an extension of the metafictional moment—we all know this is bullshit, but instead of simply piercing the fiction veil, let’s jam the text full of self-aware reflections, real-life experiences, stories, jokes, observations, characters, etc. Fiction is exploded, but authors still “save lives” by producing art that portrays their way of dealing with existence.
I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.
I can’t end this review without mentioning how much I love the voice of this book. It’s casual, brilliant, fun, and present. It reminds me a lot of Dubravka Ugresic in its ability to flip between personal experience and mind-blowing statement about society and/or art. Also, this is a book—like Reality Hunger—that readers will argue with, that will piss off readers wedded to more “conventional” novels.
We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions only as more bubble wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c. 2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behavior still owe far more to Freudian psychology that they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people now live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac. Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels—highly praised ones in particular—implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive.