David Shields’s “Life is Short; Art is Shorter”

If you haven’t been reading the Los Angeles Review of Books, you’re missing out, buddy. See, for instance, David Shields’s “Life is Short; Art is Shorter,” which went up today. Shields is, if nothing else, one of the few writers with the sack to include a semi-colon in a title. The essay reads more or less like an abstract from last year’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Like that book, it’s both a polemic and a meditation, composed of numbered paragraphs but without the sense that each enumerates a command to be obeyed, an order to carry out. Here are the last few paragraphs of the piece, which appear under the heading “Collage is Not a Refuge for the Compositionally Disabled”*:

I often stop reading front to back and read the book backwards. I can’t predict which books it will happen to me on, but this reverse-reading will tug on me like a magnet about halfway or two thirds through. It often occurs on books that I love the most.

Use a tree as a fence post and string barbed wire across it; allow ten years to pass; the tree will have grown around the barbed wire, and the barbed wire will now go through the tree rather than around it.

Am I missing the narrative gene? I frequently come out of the movie theatre having no idea what the plot was: “Wait—he killed his brother-in-law? I didn’t know he even had a brother-in-law.”

The way he hopscotches from reading journal to enigmatic factoid to anecdote keeps you suspended, dangling from the edge of one paragraph until you release, free fall, and land on top of the next. What happens in midair is really the substance of the essay — Shields carves out little spaces to think in.

Which makes sense, as his chosen project lately has consisted of an attack on narrative in favor of what he refers to as the “lyric essay.” Reality Hunger is focused in large measure on taking apart cherished traditions like narrative, story, authenticity, and authorship, and this essay is involved in the same sort of thing (plus some rather pointed criticisms of Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away,” the New Yorker essay on David Foster Wallace). In that sense, it’s more of the same — I’m still waiting for a new form, rather than the continual unspooling of these numbered, and admittedly extremely pleasurable, fragments. I’m not sure I agree with all of Shields’s critiques; I’ve never understood why authors of aesthetic manifestos insist on the abandonment of one form in favor of another. Isn’t there room and desire for pretty much everything?

After all, when you do a Google image search on “collage,” you come up with a bunch of those collages that are thousands of smaller images arranged to form a large portrait. The avant-garde connotations Shields seems to attribute to collage got subsumed beneath more accessible, mimetic forms. This is the way of things, probably, and it speaks to the malleability of forms, both strange and familiar, the way in which forms that were strange have a tendency to become familiar. So it’s not, like Johnson said of Tristram Shandy, that “nothing odd will last” (or whatever), but that nothing odd stays odd for long.

* Also, here’s something Shields wrote called “Collage” which I’m pretty sure is an excerpt from Reality Hunger.

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