or, “How I Got Drugged and Robbed in Istanbul”
(A response to David Shields’ book Reality Hunger)
By Rolf Potts
“War talk by men who have been to war is always interesting; whereas moon talk by a poet who has not been to the moon is likely to be dull.”
—Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1883)
“Most of the passages in this essay are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at last a little — for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim.”
—David Shields, Reality Hunger (2010)
“But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue,
As his owne things; and they are his owne, ’tis true,
For if one eate my meate, though it be knowne
The meate was mine, th’excrement is his owne.”
—John Donne, Satyre II, quoted by “Simon K (Chicago)” in a Mar. 31, 2010 Amazon.com review of Reality Hunger
“For Coetzee, all criticism, including his own, is autobiographical.”
—James Shapiro, “The Critic’s Teeth,” New York Times, Sept. 16, 2001, quoted in Reality Hunger (Coetzee’s sentiment has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde)
“The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate.”
—Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936)
“What is the taste of sugar? Sweet. What is sweet? What does an orgasm feel like? Fabulous. What is the feeling of fabulous? You can throw bundles of language at these questions and still not arrive at reality.”
—Bob Shacochis, “Postmodernism 2.1–The Blurring of Genre,” Bennington College, June 2009
“Imagine a street mime giving up on the exasperating charades and saying simply, ‘I’m trapped in a box.'”
—Brian Christian “High Compression,” AGNI #69 (2009)
When the date-rape drug finally wore off to the point where I could think and function, I found myself facedown in a darkened park not far from Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. For an instant, it was as if I’d been born all over again, erased and re-rendered. I remembered nothing: who I was, why I was there, what I’d ever been doing before that moment.
Instinct told me to stand up. Shaking like a junkie, I drew myself up to my haunches and pushed with my legs. I rose to my full height for an instant before something malfunctioned and my whole body veered to one side. I fell over like a windup toy on a rumpled bed-sheet; my shoulder hit the pavement first, then my face.
Blood welled on my cheekbone as a hazy understanding began to form. I patted down my pockets: my petty cash was gone, as was my wallet, my leather belt and my Swiss Army knife. I felt along my belly for my hidden money belt, but it was gone too — passport, traveler’s checks and all.
Pulling myself into an upright position, I took a few deep, deliberate breaths. Sitting there, drugged and dazed in the dim park, I strained to reconstruct what had just happened.
1. David Shields’ 2010 book Reality Hunger is a literary “manifesto” built almost entirely of quotations from other writers and thinkers. The borrowed words are marshaled to make a case against what Shields sees as boring narrative storytelling and in favor of genre-bending forms like the lyric essay. Shields laments that expressive writing has lagged behind the other arts in using appropriation as a tool, especially in an age when the most vital artists are those “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their works.”
2. Along with the lyric essay, Shields sees the collage as an ideal way to capture reality. He loves cut-ups, mosaics, found objects, chance creations, assemblages, splicings, remixes, mash-ups, homages; the author as “a creative editor, presenting selections by other artists in a new context and adding notes of his own”. The novel is dead; long live the anti-novel, built from scraps: “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man,” he says. Well, actually, he doesn’t say it, James Joyce did. But there are no quotation marks to make that clear, and deliberately so: the book’s premise is that “reality can’t be copyrighted” and that we all have (or ought to have) ownership of each other’s words.
3. Ultimately, Reality Hunger presents itself as a demolition job on entrenched assumptions about the distinction between art and reality (there isn’t any, it proclaims over and over) with the concomitant aim of forcing the reader either to embrace or reject its argument. Here, for example, is what the jacket reads: “People will either love or hate this book. Its converts will see it as a rallying cry; its detractors will view it as an occasion for defending the status quo. It is certain to be one of the most controversial and talked-about books of the year.” In other words, any criticism of this book can only evidence its daring genius, can only issue from a nervousness born of the seismic tremors it incites in the cultural landscape.
4. Perhaps the best way to respond to Reality Hunger, then, is to enter its conversation: to satirize it in the interest of counter-argument; to appropriate its form of appropriation; to refute and remix its argument until it feels less presumptuous.
5. Thomas Jefferson once did this to the Gospels, cutting them and rearranging them to make more personal sense in the context of the world’s realities (as the Bacchae knew, we always tear our Gods to bits, and eat the bits we like). No doubt we all do this as readers, with most everything we read — embracing some parts, ignoring others; remembering a few fragments and forgetting the rest.
6. It’s important to note, of course, that Jefferson considered his efforts at collage-Gospel to be a form of reading, not — as Shields might argue — an act of writing. This is an important distinction, and one of the biggest weaknesses in Reality Hunger‘s argument for collage and pastiche. In suggesting that we cut up received texts and then claim to have authored them ourselves, Shields is confusing the way everyone already reads with the way everyone should write. It’s as if a diner at a fine restaurant mixes his salad garnishes into his steak tartare and — upon showing it to his companions — claims to have created a revolutionary new dish. Only a fool would mistake this person for the chef.
7. If someone like Anthony Bourdain were to mix his salad garnishes with his steak tartare while dining in a restaurant, he would indeed be a chef, in a certain manner of speaking. Perhaps the reason we’re willing to lend an ear to Shields’ collage-driven dictums is because he is an established author of conventional fiction and nonfiction, and the greater literary community has accepted that he is someone with something important to say. Still, Shields frequently comes across as an adolescent who has just read, say, Beyond Good and Evil and is eager to try his hand at grand and earthshaking pronouncement. No doubt every creative writing class from Brown all the way down to the saddest community college has some student who thinks it would be pure brilliance to take random lines from other works and create a work of artistic innovation — and no doubt each of those works created are met by the rolled eyes of some instructor who has seen the same experiment repeated semester after semester. Shields comes close to admitting as much Reality Hunger, albeit in a weirdly myopic and self-congratulatory way: “I remember in college telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies — such presumption! — but now, thirty-plus years later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled onto something approximating that.”
8. In January of 2010, a few weeks before the release of Reality Hunger, a German teenager named Helene Hegemann debuted a book called Axolotl Roadkill, which featured a 16-year-old female protagonist exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother. After a blogger and fellow novelist announced that Hegemann had blended sizeable chunks of his own writing into hers, the German teen, instead of following the plagiarism-contrition script so familiar in recent years, announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she claimed in a statement released by her publisher. David Shields was enthusiastic and approving when asked by the New York Times for his opinion of the Hegemann scandal. “My goodness, it’s just straight out of my brainpan,” he said. “Why can’t literature catch up with the other arts?”
9. As it turns out, Hegemann’s originality/authenticity press-statement was itself stolen from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who himself attributed the notion to Jean-Luc Godard, who claimed: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to”. It’s worth noting, of course, that neither Jarmusch nor Godard were arguing for the right to cut other filmmakers’ films into their own; they were talking about drawing on varied imaginative forms and interpreting that inspiration through the specific discipline of cinematic narrative. “Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows,” Jarmusch said. “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.” This is not an apologia for plagiarism; this is sensible, conventional creative advice.
10. So much of our literature is so very traditional: even when it claims to be revolutionary, even when it aspires to be avant-garde. And, if avant-garde, it is almost always avant-garde for its form; it is rarely avant-garde for its subject.
11. One doesn’t find context using epiphanies; one finds epiphanies using context. This is how life works, and this is why stories exist.
Up until the moment I lost consciousness, my day in Istanbul had already been exceptional — enlivened by unexpected camaraderie, by uncommon novelties. In one afternoon, I’d met more strange people than the rest of my brief days in Turkey combined. Trying to determine at what point I went wrong would be no easy task.
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be adrift in the city that day, since I’d been scheduled to join a pre-planned Cairo-bound overland trip the day before. However, when the truck and trip leader never arrived for the pre-departure meeting, I found myself with an extra day to kill in Istanbul.
Since I’d already spent three days touring Istanbul’s marvelous historical attractions — from the lavish Ottoman halls of Topkapi Palace to the crowded dagger-and-houka-pipe stands of the Great Bazaar — I decided to devote my extra day in Istanbul to random wandering. Strolling the parks and alleys of the Sultanahmet tourist district with no particular goal, I spent my morning taking in the details I’d been too busy to notice when I first arrived.
Istanbul has long enjoyed a reputation of mystery and intrigue — of East and West co-mingling in grand palaces and smoky alleyways: a place where dreamers, schemers and pilgrims go to lose themselves. As I walked that day through the ancient neighborhood where the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn meet the Sea of Marmara, everything I saw seemed to contain a hidden currency. When a tout in Sultanahmet Square bullied me into his carpet shop, I was interested less in the Persian-styled rugs than the 1500 year-old Byzantine column that slanted crazily through the recently-poured concrete floor of the showroom. When I asked an old Turkish man how I might find an “eczane,” he gave me directions to the pharmacy in shrill, German-inflected English that made him sound like Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes.” When I walked past the earthquake refugees camped out in the grass along the Hippodrome, I noticed that several of them clutched cell-phones. A little gypsy girl selling candy near the tram station wore an oversized Metallica concert-shirt cinched at the waist like a dress. Cats crouched in doorways and alleyways; seagulls soared over the minarets of the Blue Mosque. A neatly dressed Turkish boy sitting on the tram grinned shyly at me and whispered “fuck you,” as if in greeting.
12. Shields states: “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. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.” Fair enough — but does personal predilection mean the novel has failed to work as an art form? Ninety-five percent of Americans don’t care much for (or regularly read) novels either. I don’t care much for quilting bees, but I’d be deservedly called a psychopath if I wrote a book calling for the end of quilting bees, since they no longer serve the purpose they once did.
13. In a popular sense, the novel has long-since been displaced by text messaging, social networking, and Internet noise — not the lyric essay. Reality Hunger might better serve as a manifesto for the blogosphere: Brevity, appropriation, truthiness, the self in all its mangy glory.
14. Of course, proclamations about the death of the novel — or in its newer form, the end of books — have been a staple of the debate about literature for almost a century. In the last decade or so, the argument has gone as follows: The novel, as we know it, has come to its end. However, there is no cause for lament. Something better (and more democratic) is going to replace it: the hypernovel, which will be written in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer. This new model for fiction proposes to liberate the reader from the two mainstays of the traditional novel: linear narrative and the author. The reader, cruelly forced to read one word after another to reach the end of a sentence, one paragraph after another to reach the end of a scene, will rejoice to learn that, according to one account, “true freedom” for the reader is now possible: “freedom from the tyranny of the line.” I think most readers — surely, most all novel readers — will be surprised to learn that structured storytelling, from the most basic beginning-middle-end scheme of traditional tales to more elaborately constructed, non-chronological and multi-voiced narratives, is actually a form of oppression rather than a source of delight. In fact, what interests most readers about fiction is precisely the story — whether in fairy tales, in murder mysteries, or in the complex narratives of Cervantes and Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen and Proust and Italo Calvino. Story — the idea that events happen in a specific causal order — is both the way we see the world and what interests us most about it. People who read for nothing else will read for plot.
15. For writers to give up the power of story in the quest for a more up-to-date kind of fiction — it is as if an engineer were to set out to develop a more sophisticated machine technology by first of all discarding the principle of electricity, on the grounds that it has been used ad nauseam for a hundred years.
16. Fiction provides us with templates for a normal emotional life. It helps us make sense of human needs and motives, simulating life experience, allowing us to grasp social relations, evoke sexual and social interactions, depict the intimate relations of kin, and locate the whole complex and interactive array of human behavioral systems within models of the total order. Humans have a universal and irrepressible need to fabricate this sort of order, and satisfying that need provides a distinct form of pleasure and fulfillment. Every novel is kind of a ritual reenactment, or retelling, of familiar stories, which proceed along expected but somehow satisfying lines. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives.
17. Literature is not a set of proposals, or a list, or a collection of agendas, or an (open-ended, revisable) itinerary. It is the journey itself — made, experienced and completed.
Sometime around noon, I was approached near the Galata Bridge by an African teenager. His skin was as black as coffee, and he flopped after me in a loose-fitting pair of rubber sandals. “Hey man,” he called to me. “Where are you going today?”
Since this same guy had already approached me two other times in the past three days, I decided to yank his chain a little. “I’m going to Senegal today,” I said. “Don’t you want to come with me?”
A look of confusion came over the boy’s face. He’d told me he was from Senegal two days before, but no doubt he’d told dozens of other people since then. It was a few beats before he smiled in recognition. “Oh hey, I remember you. You’re Mr. America. You’re always alone, and you never want to meet any girls. Maybe you could meet a girl today, huh? You have a place to stay?”
“Yes, I still have a place to stay,” I said. “And no, I don’t need to meet any girls. I’m just looking for some place to eat lunch.”
“Why don’t you go to McDonald’s? American food for Mr. America, yes?”
“But Mr. America is in Turkey now,” I said. “So maybe he’ll eat Turkish food.”
“Turkish food is for Turkish people. McDonald’s is better for you. Maybe you can buy me a hamburger, OK? I want to try a McDonald’s.”
“You’ve never eaten at McDonald’s before?”
“McDonald’s is for Americans. I am so poor!”
Against my better judgment, I decided to indulge him. “What kind of hamburger do you want?”
“A big delicious one. And a Coca-Cola. I will wait right here until you come back.”
“If I buy you a hamburger, you have to come to McDonald’s and eat it with me.”
The Senegalese boy seemed to hesitate for a moment before falling into step with me. On our way to the restaurant, he told me his name was Ahmad. “Do you think I am very handsome?” he asked.
“I’m just buying you a burger, Ahmad. I don’t want to be your boyfriend.”
Ahmad let out an embarrassed laugh. “No, no,” he said. “I want to know, am I very handsome? Could I go to Sweden do you think?”
“What does Sweden have to do with whether or not you’re handsome?”
“I think rich Sweden women like boys from Africa. I want to go to Sweden with a rich woman.”
“Sweden is cold, Ahmad.”
“But I think rich women are very warm!”
At McDonald’s, I ordered two Big Mac meals. Ahmad temporarily forgot his hustler persona as he devoured the food in silence and stared around at the spotless, mass-produced interior. “That was my best food ever,” he said, somewhat dispassionately, when he’d finished. “Now I will help you find a pretty girl.”
“I was thinking of something else, Ahmad. How would you like to go out for a smoke?”
Ahmad’s face lit up and he leaned in toward me. “You smoke hash?” he said in a loud whisper. “I will find some for cheap price!”
“I don’t want to smoke hash,” I said. “I know something better.”
18. In his 1944 short-story collection Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist and then offer a résumé, a commentary.” Though Borges never seriously pursued this method as a writer, Shields is inspired by the notion. “I want to forge a form,” he declares, “that would house only epiphanies.”
19. The problem with a form that consists only of epiphanies is that it would turn literature to a kind of spiritual-intellectual trophy case. Even at its most effective, it would reduce readers to museum tourists — half-awestruck, half-bored — picking over the spoils of conquest and the whim of the curator. The implication here is that context doesn’t count. It’s like saying you can learn all you need to know about France (and the French) by walking the galleries of the Louvre.
20. In recent years, millions of adults have been cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Let’s be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel The Hunger Games instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because The Hunger Games doesn’t bore them.
21. Between the 1830s and the Civil War, the editors of the Penny Press discovered that news conveyed through ‘stories’ drew a larger readership than the combination of editorial opinion and financial information that had theretofore dominated American newspapers. The Penny Press of the 1830s initiated the modern conception of news and reporting (the latter development coming to fruition during the Civil War). Newspapers turned their attention to stories with relevance to their readers’ lives.
22. Journalists know intuitively what scientists of the brain are discovering through brain scans, which is that emotional stories tend to open the portals, and that once there’s a connection made, people are more open to rational arguments. If you just try to make rational arguments about why people should care about Congo and how 5 million people have died there, then people tend not to be receptive. But once you’ve created a connection of empathy, rational arguments can play a supportive role.
23. Soap operas, it turns out, are shaping behavior in ways that are subtle, profound and, from the standpoint of global development experts, positive. A team of economists credits Brazilian TV “novelas” for helping to dramatically lower a fertility rate that in 1960 was above six births per woman. Others have found that in India — where soaps dominate the airwaves — villages where people watch more TV give more responsibilities and rights to women and girls. Researchers in Rwanda have found that radio soap operas there can help defuse the country’s dangerous ethnic tensions. Turkish soap operas have set off a public debate about women’s roles in the Middle East. And research in the United States has found that health tips tucked into soaps have greater sticking power than with just about any other mode of transmission. In a surprising number of ways, soap operas are improving lives around the world.
24. The average person’s knowledge of law firms, emergency rooms, police departments, prisons, submarines, and mob hits is not rooted in real experience or data-driven reports. It is based on stories. Someone who watched cop shows on television would absorb many truths about contemporary police work (“You have the right to remain silent . . .”), and a viewer of a realistic movie such as Zodiac would learn more. Indeed, many people seek out certain types of fiction (historical novels, for example) because they want a painless way of learning about reality.
25. A real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths — between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy.
26. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting, language. Of course all these elements are interlinked, and in the best fiction they all contribute to and enhance each other. But if you were to eliminate these elements, starting at the end of the list and moving toward the beginning, you could still end up with a novel that lots of people wanted to read; the average mass-market thriller is nothing but story. If you sacrifice these elements starting from the beginning of the list, you will instead wind up with a sliver of arty experimentation that, if you’re very, very good, a handful of other people might someday read and admire. There’s honor in that, but it’s daft to write something with the deliberate intention of denying readers what they love and want and then to be scandalized when they aren’t interested. If you want to engage with more than a tiny coterie, take storytelling seriously; if you think that’s incompatible with art, you are in the wrong line of work.
27. The first storyteller of the Greeks was Herodotus, who visited faraway cultures and reported back. In the fourteenth chapter of the third book of his Histories there is a story from which much can be learned. It deals with Psammenitus. When the Egyptian king Psammenitus had been beaten and captured by the Persian king Cambyses, Cambyses was bent on humbling his prisoner. He gave orders to place Psammenitus on the road along which the Persian triumphal procession was to pass. And he further arranged that the prisoner should see his daughter pass by as a maid going to the well with her pitcher. While all the Egyptians were lamenting and bewailing this spectacle, Psammenitus stood alone, mute and motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground; and when presently he saw his son, who was being taken along in the procession to be executed, he likewise remained unmoved. But when afterwards he recognized one of his servants, an old, impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the signs of deepest mourning. From this story it may be seen what the nature of true storytelling is. The epiphany — the essentially human revelation — cannot be plucked from the story; it is the story. Herodotus offers no explanations. That is why this story from ancient Egypt is still capable after thousands of years of arousing astonishment and thoughtfulness. It resembles the seeds of grain that have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up airtight and have retained their germinative power to this day.
In the heart of the Sultanahmet tourist area — not far from Emporer Justinian’s 1400 year-old Church of the Holy Wisdom — I’d recently discovered a back alley waterpipe joint called the Enjoyer Cafe, which was run by a man who called himself Cici (pronounced like “G.G.”). Though the cafe was wedged between internet rooms and kilim vendors, Cici’s home-spun, adage-spewing charisma more than made up for the lack of authenticity. Thin, lazy-eyed and companionable, Cici would make his rounds as customers from every stripe of the tourist spectrum sat on cushions and pulled on the bubbling blue-glass pipes.
I’d first visited the Enjoyer Cafe (named for Cici’s mantra: “Enjoy your life!”) the night before, along with a few other clients from my postponed overland tour. Though my companions left when the tram lines closed, I stayed on the outdoor cushions and chatted with Cici about Islam and America until the cafe closed. Since Cici had sincerely asked me to come back, I’d decided to treat Ahmad to an afternoon at Cici’s waterpipes.
Ahmad looked dubious the moment he saw Cici’s cafe. “Those are apple-smoke pipes,” he said. “Apple smoke doesn’t make you feel good. I will find some hash instead.”
“The smoke is not important,” I said. “I think it’s just a good place to relax and talk.”
“I am sorry. I must make an appointment with my brother. I can’t smoke with you today. I will find you a girlfriend later, OK?”
“Whatever you say, Ahmad.” I watched as the Senegalese teenager flopped off down the alley.
At the Enjoyer Cafe, Cici greeted me with a nervous smile. “I am glad you returned to talk to me,” he said. “But I am sorry to worry. Maybe it’s none of my business, but was that black boy your friend?”
“That was Ahmad. I wouldn’t call him a friend, necessarily. He’s just someone I know from walking around Sultanahmet. I just bought him a hamburger.”
Cici looked at me like I was crazy. “You must be careful, my friend. He is a bad boy, I think. Many Africans are not honest people. They come here only to cheat and steal.”
“I’m careful. Besides, I know Ahmad is a hustler, and Ahmad knows I know that. I think he’s harmless.”
“I am sorry. You are right. I only warn you to be careful because many people come to Turkey like blind men. Tourists, they come to take photos, but they don’t see past their cameras. Businessmen, they come to Turkey to trade, but they are blind to everything that doesn’t carry a price. Travelers, they look around, but they only see what is already in their mind. Do you know how you must come to Turkey, my friend?”
I already knew the answer (he’d given me a nearly-identical spiel in a different context the night before), but I didn’t want to throw off his rhythm. “How’s that?” I said.
“You must come to Turkey as a guest. Then you will look with your eyes and you will see. Not as a tourist with his camera or a traveler who looks and sees his own dreams. Be a guest of Turkey. A guest knows he is safe, because his hosts love him.”
“I’ll be your guest then, Cici. Do you have a pipe for me today?”
28. Shields states: “The novelist invents a story to highlight his craft. To a younger reader, stylistic bravura is a revelation of the imaginative life, but to the mature adult, craft per se isn’t revelatory, merely a demonstration of cultural refinement and a parable of the power of storytelling, all in the interest of proclaiming the writer an artist. Fiction mimics interest in God’s intelligent omnipotence: there’s a plan (plot), no matter the story’s tragedy; the most horrific story is softened by the author’s presence, seeking, no matter how faintly, to educate us on the limits of disorder held together by the civilizing process of creation. Lyric essay tells a story at a baser level: irrational, plotless, characterless, or repetitiously characterized, it informs by serial enactments of the mind’s processes prior to writing the story. The goal isn’t to get to the point of wanting to write the story (or fulfilling society’s need for it to be fictionalized); the goal is to bare the elements not as narrative but as life.”
29. But how does life stand apart from narrative? As you wrap your arms around life’s fragmentation, it’s far easier to generate a random collection of factoids and far easier to string these out across a thicket of chapters than it is to communicate something essential about the way we live. Or have lived or will live when we reap what we’re sowing now.
30. All artistic accounts involve severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us. A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply “journey through an afternoon.” We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is gray. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain. A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window. We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back out at the field. It continues to rain. At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minutes of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence “He journeyed through the afternoon.” A storyteller who provided us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening. Which explains the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art than in reality.
31. Narrative frees us from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality. Well-reported fiction can explain things that lyric essay or even journalism cannot. It allows you to enter the lives and motivations of characters with far more intimacy than is typically possible in nonfiction. In the case of a TV show like The Wire, fiction allows you to wander around inside a violent, criminal subculture, and inside an entrenched official bureaucracy, in a way that most essayists and reporters can only dream about. And it frees you from concerns about libel and cruelty. It frees you to be unfair.
32. Story is not an artificial, ready-made subversion of reality; it is a way of being human. Reality comes complete with ready-made oxygen and ready-made H2O, ready-made grass and ready-made conflicts. And we were born into a world made lush with narratives.
E. WHAT HAPPENED
“Of course, my friend.” Cici said something in Turkish to Mustafa, his sleepy-eyed assistant. When Mustafa had ducked into the small indoor hut to prepare a pipe, Cici shot me a sly grin. “Did you meet Mustafa yesterday?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But I didn’t talk to him much.”
Cici laughed cryptically. “Mustafa is too tired to talk. After the earthquake, he is afraid to go back to his apartment, so he sleeps here. None of his girlfriends want to sleep with him in the cafe, so he is very sad.”
“Just how many girlfriends does Mustafa have?”
“Not very many, since his girlfriends cost 10 million lire for each night.” Ceci laughed heartily. “Mustafa is only 20 years old, so of course he is crazy for sex. Tell me, must Christians take a bath after the sexual act?”
“No, not that I’m aware of.”
“Well in Islam, a man must wash after sex. If he dies before this bath, he will not be pure before Allah. So you see, when the earthquake hit Turkey in August, Mustafa was not pure; he had not yet washed.”
“Had he been with one of his girlfriends?”
“No,” Cici said. He grinned and made a wanking motion. “He was watching porno movies.”
“Watching pornos counts as sex?”
“A man is impure whenever he, well, whenever he finishes.” Cici made another dramatic wanking motion to underscore his point. “And Mustafa was impure, so when the earthquake came, he did not know whether to run outside and be safe, or to first take a bath. Because, you see, if he was killed trying to run outside, he would not be pure before Allah.”
As Cici told me this, Mustafa came out and placed a blue-glass water-pipe before us. I watched as Cici spooned a few hot coals into the small brass bowl. The damp apple tobacco let off a curl of smoke. Mustafa took a seat beside me and handed me the pipe’s wooden mouthpiece.
“So what happened?” I asked, choking a bit on the thin, sweet apple smoke.
“What do you mean, my friend?” Cici asked.
“What happened during the earthquake? The ‘choice’ you were talking about.”
Cici laughed. “This is not a secret,” he said. “You do not need to talk like a spy. In Turkey, there is no shame for men to talk about sex and purity. If you want to know what Mustafa did during the earthquake, ask Mustafa.”
Mustafa gave me a puffy-gummed grin. “I ran outside,” he said. “No bath.” He blushed, then turned to Cici and asked something in Turkish.
“Mustafa wants to know something about America,” Cici said. “He says he heard that in America, girls do not want money for sex. Is this true?”
I thought for a moment, thinking of the best way to phrase my answer. “In America, men and women are social equals,” I said. “Sex is a free choice for both sexes.”
Cici translated this for Mustafa, then laughed at the reply. “Mustafa says he will move to America, so girls will pay him for sex.” Cici gave me a sardonic look. “I think he will never make any money.”
33. Shields states: “I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir).” At the surface, this sounds appealing, since — to isolate just one element — the spotty power of recall has led to the kind of low-grade lying that has always defined the memoir genre. The very first memoirist, Saint Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, confessed in his Confessions that he was recording “not the events themselves, but words conceived from the images of those events.”
34. The problem with memory is that we don’t simply forget; we re-remember. Memory is a rewritable CD that is constantly being rewritten. And rewritten in a particular way: one that both makes sense of the story to us and makes it more comfortable for us. Isn’t it curious how, if two people separately describe to you an argument between them, both seem to have won? Philosophers have long been on to this in their different ways. Thomas Hobbes wrote that “imagination and memory are but one thing”. One of Nietzsche’s deepest apothegms reads: “‘I did that,’ says my memory. ‘I can’t have done that,’ says my pride, and remains adamant. Finally, memory gives way.” Schopenhauer ascribed it to vanity rather than pride. More recently, the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has suggested, after studying patients whose left and right brain hemispheres are disconnected, that human beings have what he labels “the interpreter” located specifically in the left brain, whose job it is to string together our experiences into narratives that seem to make sense. In short, we all have a novelist in our heads. A novelist called Memory ceaselessly redrafting the short story we call “My Life”.”
35. Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly cites the sociologist Francesca Polletta’s interviews with people who were active in the civil-rights sit-ins of the nineteen-sixties. Polletta repeatedly heard stories that stressed the spontaneity of the protests, leaving out the role of civil-rights organizations, teachers, and churches. That’s what stories do. As Tilly writes, they circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions, situate all causes “in the consciousness of the actors,” and elevate the personal over the institutional.
36. In Memoir: A History (2009), Ben Yagoda quotes Mark Twain: “I used to remember my brother Henry walking into a fire outdoors when he was a week old. It was remarkable in me to remember a thing like that and it was still more remarkable that I should cling to the delusion for thirty years that I did remember it — for of course it never happened; he would not have been able to walk at that age. For many years I remembered helping my grandfather drinking his whiskey when I was six weeks old but I do not tell about that any more now; I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”
37. Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on — however removed that may be from reality.
38. Cultural memory can also be spotty, as certain omissions from Reality Hunger illustrate. In the late third century A.D., for instance, a teacher of rhetoric put together a treatise On the Sublime, making heavy use of quotations, often broken into fragments, or creatively “misremembered” in a way to make the reader draw connections between the construction of a literary “corpus” and an actual breathing body. To the author of On the Sublime, when we encounter an instance of great writing we become possessed by it, almost literally. “We feel that we have created what we have only heard.” I bring up this ancient parallel not to hit Shields with the heavy hand of “oh, it was all done in the third century A.D.” (a blow he would presumably welcome in any case) but because this distant echo is an instance of “the anxiety of influence” triumphing over “the ecstasy of plagiarism.” It’s possible that Shields has never read Longinus. Yet the accidental resonance of unintended influence can be more powerful and ultimately more interesting than intentional sourcing. The supposed freedom from anxiety that comes with unrestrained plagiarism is just a form of anxiety medication that soothes without solving.
F. YOUR LIFE
I stayed at the Enjoyer Cafe with Mustafa and Cici for nearly two hours that afternoon. Mustafa asked me lots of baffling questions about sex in the West (“But what do you say to a woman to get sex if you have no money?”), and Cici preached for a bit on the values of Islam: how a gift to the poor is like a gift to the Creator; how everything in life beyond basic human needs is a matter of ego; how the Creator has 99 nicknames, but only answers to Allah.
As I got ready to leave, Cici again warned me about Ahmad, the Senegalese boy. “I only mean to be careful around those black boys,” he said. “I don’t mean to worry about the future. Do you know why we must not worry about the future?”
“Because the future is the next moment. Who knows what will happen in the next moment? Who knows which of us is closer to death? This is why I say: enjoy your life.”
That was the last time I would talk to Cici. Before that day was over, however, I would see both Mustafa and Ahmad again.
I left the Enjoyer Cafe at about half past three that afternoon. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had only three waking hours left in my day.
39. We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique. To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re-possess, our life stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.
40. Roughly around the age of 4, psychologists say, the human child develops a “theory of mind.” The child suddenly grasps that other people have feelings, thoughts, just like the child’s own. From this great mental leap comes a secondary, almost accidental talent: We can get inside the heads of people whom we never actually meet except in stories. This is why fiction works. Who says Huck Finn, Pooh or Harry Potter aren’t real? They seem real enough.
41. The stories we tell also help us construct for our sense of community. As Harvard historian Drew Gilpin Faust puts it: “We create our world out of stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.”
42. In most (but not all) cultures, stories entail causality and goals, and so that’s what listeners expect when they hear a story. This expectation is so strong that the listener will use them when remembering the story, even if the story lacked these elements.
43. We live and die stories. To ask the question What happens next? is to proclaim I am alive, I want to be alive, let me stay alive long enough to know how everything turns out. When you stop asking, What happens next?, you’re dead.
G. SHAKES UP
The simultaneous charm and risk of travel is it shakes up the paradigms and habits that help you simplify and interpret day-to-day life. Life on the road, for better or for worse, vivifies a muted aspect of reality: it makes you realize that random factors influence your life just as much as planned ones.
On page 80 of the Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey, there is a passage entitled “Turkish Knockout” that reads:
“Thieves befriend travelers, usually single men, and offer them drinks which contain powerful drugs which cause the victims to lose consciousness quickly. When the victims awake hours after, they have a terrible hangover and have been stripped of everything but their clothes. The perpetrators of this sort of crime, who are usually not Turkish, often work in pairs or trios.”
Bad fortune tends to magnify and mythify these innocuous little details and oversights. That I never read page 80 of my guidebook during my first four days in Istanbul is one of a thousand factors which, in retrospect, seemingly conspired to leave me unconscious and penniless one night in the middle of the city.
A certain 101-level existentialist (Kierkegaard, I think) once suggested that life is lived forwards, but understood backwards. This in mind, I have recalled and re-recalled the three hours preceding my robbery so many times that, now, the event itself almost seems like a miracle — a divine tapestry woven from 1000 thin, perfectly-converging threads of chance.
44. Shields states: “Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.”
45. As if to preempt the reader’s potential boredom with its own conveyances, Reality Hunger continually advertises its own importance, beginning with a dust jacket design composed entirely of endorsements (kind of like an invalid’s room pasted with get-well cards from so many friends): Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum, Tim Parks, Jonathan Raban. “David Shields’ book tells us who we are,” reads a blurb from the poet Albert Goldbarth. “It tells us why we read and why the things we read exist and where it might all go tomorrow.”
46. A Chicago native, Goldbarth lives in Wichita, Kansas — a city he described in his Best American Poetry 2007 bio as “The Gateway to Boredom.” To me, this passing detail says more about Reality Hunger than Goldbarth’s blurb does.
47. I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Wichita, and I keep in touch with many friends there. Off the top of my head, here’s what a few of them have been up to: (1) A former junior high classmate opened a coffin store in Towne West Mall. Here, you can buy a casket with a logo from your favorite college sports team, or order an urn that permanently clamps to the frame of your spouse’s Harley-Davidson. (2) Of the three track teammates who ran the 4×400 relay with me my senior year of high school, one has been to jail for shooting a cook while robbing a pizza store; another took six bullets in the parking lot of a club called Jazzy’s, and lived. Around the same time those events were playing out, the fourth member of our relay team was playing cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. (3) In 2003, a guy I’ve known since Boy Scouts started an alternative newspaper called F5 (after the tornado-rating category), which published muckraking investigations into local politics, dissected the talents and ambitions of local artists, and captured the anxieties and idiosyncrasies of left-leaning locals. Sophisticated, Village Voice-style alt-journalism this was not — but for four years F5 was a microcosmic window into the insecurity, complexity, and human vibrancy of “Red-State” America in the Bush Era. Its demise, in 2007, was emblematic of just how antique print media had become.
48. Of the many things a writer could say about Wichita, then, it’s not the Gateway to Boredom: It’s a city full of people, which is to say it’s full of stories, which is to say it’s packed with the raw material of what it’s like to be alive right now. In saying that he is bored by Wichita, Albert Goldbarth is essentially stating that the city doesn’t measure up to the diversions and stimulations of the metropole — the prejudices of which are the boutique standard by which so many things (including literature) are invariably judged. One can only assume that Goldbarth is content to assess the world at a received level. (Or, to borrow Shields’ phrase, he refuses to try very hard.)
49. Most manifestoes about literature emerge from inside the echo chamber of a rarefied class of people. Unless writers are making a continual effort to travel beyond (and report from outside) that echo chamber, they will not capture “what it feels like to be alive right now.”
50. In short: Individuals hoping to convey reality must become like travel writers, both literally (in engaging other communities) and metaphorically (in imagining other consciousnesses).
Of all the factors that contributed to my demise in Istanbul, perhaps the most damaging variable was also the most innocuous: Shortly after purchasing a book of Middle Eastern myths at a shop near the Sultanahmet tram stop, I met up with a couple of Australians from my postponed overland truck trip. They informed me that our trip leader had finally turned up in Istanbul, and was due to arrive with the group in Sultanahmet at around seven that evening. Figuring this would be as good a time as any to register and pay my trip fees, I returned to my hotel and took my passport, traveler’s checks, and $400 in petty cash from the lock-box.
Thus, for the first time since I’d arrived in Istanbul, I was personally carrying all of my money and identification at once.
I emerged from my hotel to find Mustafa, the sleepy-eyed assistant from the waterpipe cafe, waiting there for me. “I see you inside,” he said. He pantomimed smoking a waterpipe. “You remember?”
“Of course,” I said. “You’re Mustafa, right?”
Mustafa nodded. “We eat now?” he said.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why Mustafa had pegged me as a dining companion. Initially, I thought he was going to tout me to some expensive restaurant, but instead he took me to a street vendor for flatbread and meat-sauce. He briefly dug for pocket-change, but made no protest when I paid for the food myself. In an inspired flourish, I even stopped at a storefront market and bought two Efes-lager tallboys — one for each of us. Mustafa led me to a park bench near the Hippodrome, and we ate our meal in the late-day sun.
Since Mustafa wasn’t much for conversation, I took out my Middle Eastern myth book and began to read. After a few minutes, Mustafa took the book from me and started to flip through the pages. Whenever he saw an illustration, he would ask me what it was. “I don’t know,” I would tell him each time. “I haven’t read the book yet.”
At some point during this charade, Ahmad flopped up out of nowhere and sat down beside us. “Mr. America!” he said, startling me a bit. “We go to McDonald’s again?”
I looked over at the African teenager, who was already peering around for other tourists to hustle. “No, I think once a day is enough, Ahmad.”
“You need a girl now?”
“Not right now. Maybe Mustafa wants one.”
Mustafa looked up from the book, laughed and handed his beer to Ahmad. Ahmad took a polite sip, and the two of them paged through the illustrations in my myth book.
“What’s this?” said Ahmad, pointing at a Babylonian drawing.
“He don’t know,” Mustafa said authoritatively.
For a moment, I felt perfectly happy to be perched on a park bench in Istanbul with a teenaged Senegalese pimp and a homeless Turkish onanist. Sitting there, basking in the first blush of my beer buzz, I felt like I’d rediscovered a couple of misfit little brothers.
After a few minutes, Mustafa made like he had to leave. “I work now,” said, pantomiming a waterpipe again.
“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
Mustafa held up the myth book. “You give to me?”
A part of me wanted to let Mustafa keep the book, but I’d just paid $13 for it and had barely read the first page. “Can you read English?” I asked.
“Then I think I’ll keep it for myself,” I said.
Mustafa stood up to leave. “You come?”
“No,” I said. “I have to meet someone at seven. Maybe later tonight.”
51. In his seminal essay, “Paleface and Redskin,” originally published in the Kenyon Review, Philip Rahv contends that American writers tend to group themselves around two polar types, palefaces and redskins: “Consider the immense contrast between the drawing-room fictions of Henry James and the open air poems of Walt Whitman. Compare Melville’s decades of loneliness, his tragic failure, with Mark Twain’s boisterous career and dubious success. At one pole there is the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and of the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord. The fact is that the creative mind in America is fragmented and one-sided. For the process of polarization has produced a dichotomy between experience and consciousness.”
52. The problem with the nonconformist orthodoxy peddled by writers like David Shields is that it lands too squarely on the paleface side of the fence: it drives us deeper into ourselves; it isolates us from one another. Rather than a radical subversion of tradition, the doubt he champions is not a hunger for reality, but a hunger for his own reflection in every window looking out upon the world. At the heart of this lies a selfish agenda, that has (one could argue) really ceased seeing the world as a unity, and has begun aggressively internalizing certain dogmas that say: of course you are the most important thing, of course you exist separate from the rest of the world.
53. Are we writing as big as we need write? Are we just spoiled-brat sneering aesthetes who are masturbating while looking away from the big questions of our age? Have we sufficiently described the wonders of living in our time? Are we properly accounting for the good and the beautiful and the enjoyable? But also: Are we properly accounting for the fact that evil exists, and exploring the difference between this and not-evil? How much of the irony and cleverness of our experimental writing is just knee-jerk and ultimately reactionary? I’m not saying everyone should get busy on his or her Somalia novel; I just think there is a way in which even the most domestic story (or wild, experimental story) should take into account the larger world.
54. The writer’s task, then, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the writer had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary. To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of not only a corrupt evangelist but also the entire Protestant clergy at a time when they still set the moral tone of America, Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chautauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.
55. Reporting is, in fact, a time-honored method of remix and collage that is far more elegant and dynamic than what Shields proposes. Each piece of reportage has many authors, and it is only thanks to long-established custom that we sign the text with a single name. In fact it may well be the most collective, co-written literary genre of all, because dozens of people contribute to producing it — the people we meet and talk to on the world’s roads, who tell us stories about their lives, the life of their community, events they have taken part in or heard about from others. These foreign people, whom we often do not know well, are not only among our richest sources of knowledge about the world, but also help us to do our jobs in many other ways — they arrange contacts, lend us their homes, or quite simply save our lives.
56. To be an active traveler — be it to the far side of the world or to an unfamiliar part of your hometown — is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in life. Writers perform an ethical task when they use narrative to communicate something coherent and absorbing and authentically human from the chaos of the world. Some describe this as reportage — though in a way it could be called “literature by foot”
I. EVERYWHERE YOU GO
After Mustafa left, it didn’t take long for Ahmad to get bored with both me and the myth book. “Will you stay here today?” he asked.
“Only for about 40 more minutes,” I said. “Why?”
“Because I will leave now. But maybe I will come back with a beautiful woman for Mr. America.”
“Whatever you say, Ahmad.”
Ahmad flopped off, leaving me alone on the park bench. Since the folks from the overland trip would be arriving on the tram, I moved 50 meters over to a bench within view of the tram stop. I wasn’t there for five minutes before a round-faced, olive-skinned man came up and asked me if I would take a photo of him and his friend. I set down my beer and took a couple shots of them standing together. Even with their touristy hip-packs and sunglasses and cans of Efes, the pair looked awkward and out of place.
“Where are you guys from?” I asked.
“You try and guess!”
I’ve always been awful at guessing nationalities, but looked them both over. The round-faced man looked like vaguely like an old Puerto Rican friend of mine. His friend, a skinny, brown-skinned fellow with intense eyes and smoke-stained teeth, looked Persian. I decided to place my guess somewhere in the middle. “Are you from Spain?” I said.
The Puerto Rican Moroccan introduced himself as Mohsin and said he ran a pizza parlor back home. The Persian Moroccan’s name was Hasan, and he told me his parents were diplomats in Malaysia. They were on their way to visit Greece, and — since I’d recently arrived from Greece — I decided to offer a few travel tips. Paging through the maps in their French-language Greece guide, I gave them the kind of hearsay advice and half-digested guidebook information that travelers always share with one another when they cross paths: which mountains are supposedly good for hiking; which islands are supposedly good for partying; which historical sites are supposedly worth their while.
“This is great,” Mohsin said as I briefed him on various attractions. “How do I thank you?”
“No worries; sharing travel secrets is a time-honored tradition.”
“We are new to traveling, I guess.” Mohsin held up his can of Efes. “Maybe you want a beer?”
“I already have one,” I said, pointing to my own can.
“How about food? We can go to the waterfront and eat fish. Please. You are our first American friend.”
“I don’t much like fish,” I said. “Besides, I really don’t have time to eat. I’m meeting some people here in about 30 minutes.
Mohsin seemed distressed at the thought of me not liking fish. “You don’t like fish only because you don’t know fish!” he exclaimed. “Moroccans are the best fisherman in the world, and I know how to choose the best fish. I can look a fish in the eyes and know if he’s a good fish or a bad fish. I can teach you!”
In the previous weeks, I’d had a Finnish girl teach me how to read palms and a pair of Hungarians instruct me on tasting wine. Learning how to size up a fish seemed almost too weird and charming to pass up. Still, I had other priorities. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I really can’t miss my appointment.”
“I will give you a ten-minute lesson to looking at fish. You will be back here before your friends, and when they arrive, you can teach them also about fish.”
I pondered this for a moment. “We’d better hurry, then,” I said.
I jammed my myth book into my back pocket as we trotted off toward the waterfront. Halfway across the Hippodrome, I spotted Ahmad chatting up a couple of unenthused-looking Germans. In good spirits, I yelled over to him: “Where’s my girlfriend, Ahmad?”
Ahmad looked over at me distractedly. “Hello!” he said, as if trying to place me.
“Do you wanna learn how to buy fish?” I called to him.
A look of mortification came over Mohsin’s face as I said this. “No!” he hissed. “Don’t bring that boy with us.”
“It’s no problem,” I said. “He’s a friend.”
“He’s an African. Africans are cheaters and thieves.”
“You’re African too, Mohsin.”
“Yes,” he laughed. “But I’m not black!”
By this time, Ahmad had returned his attention to the Germans, so we kept walking. “You shouldn’t judge people that way,” I said to Mohsin. “You have to judge people as individuals. There are good and bad people everywhere you go. That’s one of the things you learn when you travel.”
“Americans are crazy,” joked Hasan. “They like everyone.”
Mohsin laughed and took a package of cream-sandwich cookies from his daypack. “Life is all we have.” He popped a cookie into his mouth and handed another to Hasan. “Maybe it’s good to like everyone.”
56. Here’s a true thing that you might have suspected by now: Mohsin and Hasan were the ones that robbed me.
57. Here’s another true thing that you might have suspected by now: My Istanbul whodunit only vaguely parallels the point I am trying to make. Sure, it recounts a time when I went out into the world and encountered people unlike myself. Sure, it examines a certain kind of reality (an economic one, in particular) at the cusp of a tourist’s world. Sure, it’s a casual peek into the globalized textures that define the world’s cities — but it’s not a particularly sophisticated piece of reportage, and it’s certainly not manifesto material. It’s just a remembrance of events recounted in such a way that a reader might want to find out what happened next. It is, in short, a story — a time-honored and still-relevant technology for keeping people engaged, exploring aspects of lived experience, and, on occasion, drawing attention to embedded ideas and arguments.
58. Here’s one final true thing: Reality Hunger is a terrifically effective book. Good manifestos propagate. Their seeds cling to journals and blogs and conversations, soon enough sprawling sub-manifestoes of acclamation or rebuttal. After the opening call to action, a variety of minds turn their attention to the same problem. It’s the humanist ideal of a dialectic writ large: ideas compete and survive by fitness, not fiat. David Shields’ book has the immodest ambition and exhorter’s zeal to create a useful dialogue — to make writers consider what they value, decide which direction their craft might take, and argue for what they think is important.
59. What should writers do to remain relevant in the 21st century? Love words and agonize over sentences; journey into the world; experience, witness, and report back.
Mohsin and Hasan had played their roles perfectly. When Mohsin tossed me one of the cream-sandwich cookies, I didn’t even remotely suspect that it had been laced with (most likely) Rohypnol. I didn’t think much of the slightly bitter taste as the cookie went down, nor did I think it suspicious when Hasan stopped to take a leak in the bushes near the waterfront. Mohsin suggested we sit on a park bench while Hasan did his business.
The last thing I recall that day is Hasan furtively poking around in the foliage along the old stone retaining wall that overlooks the Sea of Marmara. The very next instant in my memory is one of night and solitude — of me drugged and disoriented, momentarily trying to remember how to walk again.
Anyone who’s been robbed-clean overseas will know that the days following your robbery provide a kind of masochistic therapy. Amidst the tedious hours of down time in various police stations, consulates and travelers-check offices, you have ample time to re-examine each individual thread of your demise.
To retrospectively pluck any one of these threads is to watch the robbery neatly unravel into some idealized parallel future. It’s a torturous, yet irresistible exercise.
In time, this exercise of memory renders things relative: it makes you realize that things could have been much, much worse; it makes you realize that bad experiences, on the road or otherwise, help you appreciate good experiences otherwise forgotten. You come out, in the end, with a sense of wonder at all those other, unseen moments when the threads of chance fluttered — nearly connecting, but not — just past the periphery of your life.
And then — once you have replaced your passport and filed away the lessons-learned — you resume weaving.
Because you now know there is a certain holiness in the notion that those threads exist at all.
1) Randy Kennedy, “The Free-Appropriation Writer,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2010
2) Blake Morrison, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields,” The Guardian, Feb. 20, 2010
3) James Williams, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields,” PopMatters.com, Feb. 5, 2010
5) The Bacchae line comes from Adam Gopnik, “What Did Jesus Do?” The New Yorker, May 24, 2010
7) Nietzsche line is derived from James Williams, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields,” PopMatters.com, February 5, 2010; the community-college sentences come from CherubChub, “Tim the Tool-man of literary criticism?” Amazon.com review of Reality Hunger, Mar. 6, 2010
8) Note Nicholas Kulish, “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” New York Times, Feb. 11, 2010; and Randy Kennedy, “The Free-Appropriation Writer,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2010
9) See MovieMaker Magazine, Jan. 22, 2004
10) Ryszard Kapuściński, from Granta 21 (1987), interviewed by Bill Buford
12) Quilting analogy from Tom Badyna’s Powells.com review of Reality Hunger, Feb. 27, 2010
13) Eric Lundgren, “Still Hungry,” Amazon.com review of Reality Hunger, March 1, 2010
14) Susan Sontag, At the Same Time (2007)
15) Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Harper’s, Nov. 1989
16) This section mashes up excerpts from three sources: Denis Dutton, “The Pleasures of Fiction,” Philosophy and Literature 28 (2004); Jonathan Franzen, interviewed by Donald Antrim, Bomb 77 (Fall 2001); Zadie Smith, “Fail Better,” The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2007
17) Sontag, At the Same Time
20) Lev Grossman, “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 29, 2009
21) Robert S. Boynton, The New New Journalism (2005), xxiii
22) Nicholas Kristof, interviewed by Dave Gilson, Mother Jones, Mar./Apr. 2010
23) Drake Bennett, “Guiding lights: How soap operas could save the world,” the Boston Globe, May 2, 2010
24) Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination,” The Chronicle Review, May 30, 2010
25) Gopnik, “What Did Jesus Do?”
26) Laura Miller, “A reader’s advice to writers,” Salon, Feb 23, 2010
27) Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936), translated by Harry Zohn for the book, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (1969)
29) Theo Padnos, “Miles from nowhere”, Yemen Observer, Feb. 5, 2005
30) Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (2002)
31) Mark Bowden, “The Angriest Man in Television,” The Atlantic Monthly, Jan./Feb. 2008
32) Bob Shacochis, “Postmodernism 2.1–The Blurring of Genre,” June 2009, Bennington
33) The Saint Augustine observation is from Sam Anderson, “The Memory Addict,” New York Magazine, Apr. 27, 2008
34) Timothy Garton Ash, “Truth is another country”, The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2002
35) Malcolm Gladwell, “Here’s Why”, The New Yorker, Apr. 10, 2006
37) Patrick Duff, “From the Brink of Oblivion,” unpublished manuscript, quoted in Reality Hunger
38) Marco Roth, “Throwback Throwdown,” n+1, May 18, 2010
39) Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)
40) Joel Achenbach, “The vestigial tale,” the Washington Post, Oct. 29, 2009
41) Robert Atwan, Convergences: Message, Method, Medium (2004), quoted in “What is Narrative, Anyway?” by Chip Scanlan, Poynter.org, September 29, 2003
42) Daniel T. Willingham, “The Privileged Status of Story”, American Educator, Summer 2004
43) Shacochis, “Postmodernism 2.1”
45) Some phrasing from Roth’s “Throwback Throwdown”
51) Michael David Lukas, “Workshopping the Next Generation of American War Literature,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2010
52) Andrew Keen, “Hunger Artists,” BN.com review, May 26, 2010; final sentence is from George Saunders, interviewed by Ben Marcus in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (2005)
53) Saunders, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
54) Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”
55) First sentence is Sontag, At the Same Time; second sentence is from Joshua Benton, “Food for Thought: Sontag and Chee on the shrinking world” Nieman Journalism Lab, May 18, 2010; final sentence is from Kapuściński, Granta 21
58) Sam Sacks, “Plotting a Revolution,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 22, 2010
59) Remixed from Sontag, At the Same Time
This essay originally appeared in Issue #13 of Hobart, March 2012.