“I think just about everything David Shields writes is pretty much indispensable”, reads Bret Easton Ellis’ token gesture of affirmation, bolted on to the back cover of Shields’ 2013 reflective essay. Alarm bells thrumming in my ears, weary of anything condoned by the Brat Pack author, I nevertheless approached this discourse with a sense of intrigue, the self-professed blend of “confessional criticism and anthropological autobiography” catching my eye. Would Shields’ forage in the woods of literary criticism produce pertinent insight into the cathartic nature of literature, or another postmodern car-crash to be tossed nonchalantly into the wasteland?
Sadly, it is the latter, as this musing yet muddled work aims high but falls short in rudimentary areas. It struggles to amount to greatness, burdened as it is by muddying contradiction and vainglorious hauteur. The intermittent pearls in the mire are discredited by the alacrity with which they are undermined a few pages (or, on occasion, lines) later. Shields has been (and, probably, still is) quite a troubled man, as is revealed by his history with suicidal inclinations, and one cannot help but view the whole book as a self-help exercise. We are left with the indelible image of a modern day Ixion endeavouring to ease his agony by spurring on the Wheel of Fire’s axis all the more tenaciously.
The opening sees Shields explain the agenda of the book through example by presenting the works of Ben Lerner, fellow writer, in order to showcase their concomitant inability to comprehend life and literature. Thus is the core tenet of the book defined: the ‘incommensurability of language and experience’, which renders down the fatty excess of existence to the decision between settling for an art simply “for your own purpose”, or aspiring to an “artfully arranged life”.
This bizarrely morbid weltanschauung is the one constant throughout, yet it soon becomes clear that Shields upsets his own equilibria by shattering the dichotomy and opting both to view his life ubiquitously through an artistic lens and to do so in a purposeful and, quite honestly, melodramatic way. Such is made clear via the autobiographical account which follows, obviously moulded on Lowell’s Life Studies, the begetter of confessionalism, which culminates in an extended comparison between the qualities he finds odious in George Bush (“He finds Nancy Pelosi sexy”) and those he detests in himself. Little more than gratuitous self-lambasting? Quite possibly, as his empathy with G.K Chesterton’s answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ would prove. ‘I am’, they both sigh, crushed by the weight of their own perceived inadequacy.
Shields then segues into a wider contemplation on life, and one which by now dazzles few in its sepulchral verdicts. Metaphorical imagery of life’s facets as “barnacles on a rotting pier” seem a puzzling misfit by an author who allegedly owes his survival solely to art’s close affinity with life (“Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this – which is what makes it essential” stands tall on the front page, after all). By this stage, however, a reader will already be au fait with Shields’ appetite for seizing the optimist’s paintbrush and smothering it with the bleak sludge of pessimism, before slathering his own grandiloquent opinion on everything. Later on, the largest section of the essay is dedicated to the author’s favourite 55 books, and an accompanying description of each. Shields reaches the apotheosis of enjoyment when savagely bludgeoning all that the reader believes, or indeed even likes, with award-winning prolix, before performing the Danse Macabre all over its writhing body.
But the question arises whether there is more to the book’s purpose than this. Given that the sections attempting to be normative are dubious at best, could then more clout be found in the descriptive? Shields must be lauded for the intrepidity of his total self-exposure, and so perhaps critical eye must be restricted to this. If so, however, scrutiny as to how apposite judgement really is must ensue. This is a book which relinquishes authority on its subject matter, transcending partisanship, rather choosing to reside in the personal realm of confessionalism, emancipated by absolute revelation. When this is realised, the need for any sort of criticism/analysis dissipates. We are merely observers of the Shields Show, and the main actor gives us the option to shut up and watch, or leave.
Such would be fine, leaving a definitive tone as the only requisite for Shields to put down his pen with a pervading sense of accomplishment. Except he does not manage this. The final ten pages perpetuate the unwavering contradiction which plagues the essay, vacillating between whether literature did or did not save the author’s life. Even the last chapter’s title comports itself as synecdoche for this by-now farcical deliberation: “How Literature Saved My Life: How it didn’t.” After nearly 200 pages of extended probing of ‘how literature saved his life’, Shields finishes less certain than he started. Even the efficacy of language divides him by the end – “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite”, requiring a massive caveat to feel at ease with his concluding message. Such uncertainty, after 200 pages of unabashed, theatrical monologue, is quite frankly, annoying.
Shields surrenders the right to instruct on the emotional tenor of literature in return for permission to reveal his own personal relationship with art. In doing so, the least that a reader is entitled to is a conclusive verdict on such authorial experience, and so is left bitterly disappointed. This experimental exercise in postmodernism is proof in the pudding that pushing established and familiar boundaries so rarely reaps reward.
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Just published is War Is Beautiful (powerHouse, November 2015); Other People: Takes & Mistakes is forthcoming from Knopf in February 2017. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks is a full-time tennis player. He can be found at his blog ‘Rambunctious Racquet’ – http://rambunctiousracquet.blogspot.co.uk/. He lives in Surrey, England. @hendriks_marcus
How Literature Saved My Life is published by Notting Hill Editions.
Author bio courtesy of davidshields.com