Before I consider a personal book, perhaps I should offer a personal story. My first substantive encounter with David Shields, following some long-distance business, was an interview for his 2017 selection of essays, Other People. The exchange proved fruitful, and it’s still online. Towards the end, I tell Shields he’s written a “serious book on manhood in contemporary America.” He’s sought to make sense of the changing roles of men in our culture: a “quandary,” I call it.
David ShieldsThe Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn & Power
Mad Creek Books, 2019
The author allowed my claim only a “maybe.” He noted that Other People included several essays on women, remarkable women. But now look at his latest: The Trouble With Men.
To make too much of this would be silly. My conversation with Shields was, finally, just another day at the office. Between that book and this, too, he’s published another, the scarifying Nobody Hates Trump More than Trump (2018). Still, I can’t ignore the connection either, not when it’s been dropped in my lap, and especially not when it helps illuminate the differences between Other People and this latest. Insofar as the 2017 text was about the author’s gender, it was about figures like Howard Cosell, as much a Bozo as a hero to American men of a certain age. For such men, the book raised a question long familiar: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” I’m saying Shields’s own Boomer moment gave shape to that earlier text’s sprawl. The new one, far slimmer and more focused, nonetheless probes issues—mysteries—that have a considerably longer and more complex history. Trouble With Men seeks, as it says at the outset, an “intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy.”
To that end, it demands self-exposure at a level few writers have risked. Shields finds his book’s direction in thinking about sex with his wife, and he draws her so close, throughout, that she’s known only as “you.” Some of the effusions might be snatches of a perverse love song:
You exhale and give me a nasty look.
The look is near-perfect.
It makes me both hostile and horny.
Indeed, the first chapter of the five here calls itself, though tentatively, a “love letter.” Yet when other authors gush in similar ways, in second person, the adoration seems untrammeled; see Vladimir Nabokov, the close of Speak, Memory. In Shields, however, the cuddles hide a claw, and spur him to what some would call TMI.
Declaring the book “his most self-mortifying by far,” the author doesn’t stop at revealing his favorite positions and role-playing games. He makes his submissiveness a primary subject, showing how it’s part and parcel of his Jewishness, his literary calling, and more. As he bares his soul, happily, he can deliver fine, startled laughs, such as when he puts together Franz Kafka and the “sexpert” Susie Bright. More than that, though, the discomforting material must be understood as points on a compass—they provide a route and an objective. The “immersion into... intimacy” can seem, by the final pages, like a baptism; Shields concludes with a vision of being born again, in a “real marriage,” with “two people standing before each other completely naked.”
The quest for such “candor” seems laudable, and what’s more it sounds the same themes as when he celebrates a schmuck like Cosell: the need to recognize what “makes you a person, full of the contradictions... that everyone else has.” I get it, “ambivalence... is the essence of love,” and having grasped that much, I don’t mind a reasonable amount of Trouble.
To put my point that way is a kind of joke, of course. It toys with someone else’s words (Sam Spade’s, in Maltese Falcon), just as Shields so often does. His latest is another pastiche, its pieces culled from other books, as well as correspondence, conversation, and more, in what’s become his signature approach since Reality Hunger in 2010. That work remains radical, right down to its formatting: slumgullion as critique. Hunger uses appropriation to demonstrate what art owes to appropriation, though naturally it prefers a borrowed term like “literary montage” (Walter Benjamin). By now, after a decade of more than a book a year, Other People actually looks like an outlier. Most of that book’s pieces have a single controlling consciousness, whereas the others since Hunger incorporate other voices and perceptions; they include a number of titles with co-authors.
Still, while a text like Nobody Hates Trump cites no end of other thinkers on the current president, as well as the man himself, its visitors feel more at home. In Trouble, on the other hand, they keep things unsettled, so that no mood lasts beyond a moment. The lines composed by Shields himself, though never warm and fuzzy, generally evince genuine caring and close observation—but then a subsequent line or two, will erupt with an alternative take, apropos perhaps but nevertheless another thing entirely.
From Kathryn Harrison:
There is something deep within me that wants to hurt
something deep within you.
There is something deep within me that wants to be hurt
by something deep within you.
—the brutal economy of romance, in which one person’s doom
becomes two people’s destinations.
The use of the em-dash throughout heightens the abruptness of the interruptions, and for myself the jitters add to the pleasure. I discern real-world correlations, such as when a child’s call in the night puts an instant end to Mom’s and Dad’s canoodling. Also the quick breaks allow for more laughs, such as when Shields cracks, “—porn: the world’s one true religion” (nor does the book lack for borrowed zingers, to be sure). The many references to film complicate every image with which they’re paired, and the effect overall is of a stream of consciousness so jagged and rushed, it might be in sexual frenzy. No small feat— the book’s a wild ride full of unforgettable glimpses, really— but I do wish the stream did less meandering.
“Is sex really that awful?” Shields asks, pausing a moment in his self-flagellation. The question implies we’re going to get an answer, get somewhere, but page after page all we encounter is still more evidence that the human act of love is a helpless flailing between damaged puppets. Every one of the long essays, or whatever you’d call them, feels at times like just another puppet-whuppin’. The skillful marshalling of quotes and quips seems to deliver the same “agony of love without communication.” This sameness seems to me the great challenge, going forward, for this author. To reinvent the essay, even so brilliantly as he does, isn’t to rob the form of its search for meaning.