There’s an old New Yorker cartoon showing two men seated at a bar and one is saying to the other, “I’ve always been attracted to warm, beautiful women which, I think, says something about me.” It suggests that the objects of our desires also reflect our true, and in some cases, baser, selves.
It also says something about David Shields’s latest offering, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power; its aim, Shields states at the book’s beginning, is to be a “short intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy.” The exploration takes the form of a letter to his wife, whom he addresses as “you,” and whose profound, at times crippling, effect on Shields casts light on his marriage’s (indeed all marriages’) destructive and self-destructive ways of setting up house. “I’m married to someone,” he writes, “who either has nothing or wants nothing, rendering me in possession of nothing.” His hope, a putative goal, is to either resuscitate his marriage or memorialize its end.
Shields does all this using his trademark technique of appropriating and collaging text from other writers, including himself, and laying it out in a way that creates a new form of narrative, one that is both unfailingly personal and yet still manages to render everything—the reader included—a part of everything else. Which is both sobering and electrifying.
As the author of more than twenty books, including The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Reality Hunger, and I Think You Are Totally Wrong: An Argument, nothing gets past Shields, the gleeful provocateur. He’s also an elastic writer, going from a fairly hilarious (and fairly terrifying) skewering of Trump in his previous work, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, to admissions in The Trouble With Men so discomfiting at times, it’s hard to un-see them.
I’ve known Shields for over a decade. In person, he is far less intimidating than he is on the page. He speaks fluent pop culture and seems to have read every book ever written. He is usually the one asking the questions (which has the effect of making you feel like the most fascinating person in the room), but it was my turn to lead the conversation, as I did when I phoned him up on a rainy Sunday to talk about sex and marriage and the trouble with us all.
— Cathy Alter for Guernica
Guernica: In light of the troubled men now on public view, it’s a weirdly auspicious time to release this book, to say the least. I can’t decide whether you have the best timing in the world, or the worst. What do you think?
David Shields: I finished the book well before the advent of the #MeToo movement; in no way was I writing toward that or away from that. I keep thinking of this amazing line of Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia’s, who says, “Man is weak, and when he makes strength his profession, he is weaker.” That for me is the crux of the book and, to me, of #MeToo. That is, I think all these men who commit acts of sexual misconduct tend to be unbelievably weak, and they mask or disguise or hide from their weakness by fantasizing about a weakened feminine and/or a reified masculinity. I think the key to a better discourse is for men to acknowledge, first, how lost and weak and broken they are. Once they have acknowledged that, and reckoned with that within themselves, it seems to me impossible or unlikely that they would commit the acts many such men are accused of, if that makes sense. I realize it has many platforms—from workplace imbalance to power dynamics, etc.—but for me the key, from a man’s point of view, is for men to first understand their brokenness, their woundedness, their lostness, their sadness; that seems to me to accomplish much, at least potentially. It would prevent men from acting badly or as badly, in that after such self-knowledge, grotesque acts of violation are unlikely or impossible, since one understands them—these actions—to be barely disguised confession. What do you think?
Guernica: I’m wondering if you think men will have a harder time reading this book than women. In other words, will men read it as “the trouble with me/us” and women will read it as “the trouble with not me?”
Shields: Perhaps. I’m not seeing that so far among writer-friends who have read the book. I think the key to the book working for a reader is for him or her to see it as the trouble with all of us. My favorite response to the book thus far is from a woman who’s a Lacanian psychoanalyst. She says, “Its counterintuitive, amoral perspective on love—so much in contrast to what we hear all around us—is the only approach that works.” What does that mean? To me, it means that we are all vectors on a vast grid of animal drives. It’s crucial to understand what your actual drives are—how you want to hurt or be hurt, and to see if you can find a partner who is a willing participant in that. Everyone has these desires, or so the book argues, and I think what’s troubling about the book is its attempt to evoke this idea as a universal. Readers who like the book are “willing to go there.”
Guernica: But isn’t your aerial view from your self-piloted plane? Is the reading public ready for your amoral perspective?
Shields: I suppose so, but that’s true of every work of literary art that I admire—from Heraclitus to Renata Adler. It’s an aerial view from a gimlet eye. Or rather, I’m taking my perspective on sex and love and trying to “blow it up” as a universal idea. It’s a work that mixes personal psychology and impersonal philosophy. It’s meant to be provocative in that sense. I love the mix of the confessional and the abstract.
Guernica: I think you like to incite quiet riots in your work, pushing yourself and the reader beyond what’s comfortable and familiar. It’s uninteresting for you otherwise, yes?
Shields: I’m animated by work that stretches me emotionally, ethically, etc. I remain provoked by the transgressive property of nearly any work. I want a cold shower, not a warm bath. I want a work that shocks me awake, not puts me to sleep. It talks about what you’re not supposed to talk about. That’s my whole modus operandi, for better or worse. Without that, I don’t get to the page. Everything else is dull for me. Picasso: “Good taste is the enemy of great art.”
Guernica: You begin the book by stating its aim: “a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy.” Part of this process for you, I think, includes a guided tour of your wounds, from your stutter to your life with a cold and punishing mother. Does this sort of examination deepen and perhaps fetishize a wound so that your wounds are also your muses? Is there a bit of repetition compulsion to it?
Shields: My stutter doesn’t really influence my life that much anymore, but I do nourish that wound in order to have something to write about and talk about. One never wants to get entirely over one’s wounds, does one, lest one have nothing to write about. If I understand your question, I think I agree. Again, though, isn’t that true of most writers—at least writers, from St. Augustine to Sarah Manguso, of book-length personal essay? I also think you’re right that writing about it extends and exacerbates the issue. And in this case, publishing this book feels like a serious extension of the self-punishment that the book talks about. Is the book’s publication a weird epilogue to its curious mixture of approach and avoid, discuss and hide? Perhaps.
Guernica: I’ve long known about your “trouble with memoir”—your push against the traditional, redemptive form. Yet somehow this book, written in snippets and pasted like collage, is more immediate and more intimate and more revealing than any of your previous works. At least for me, as a reader and as your friend. It was a bit of a peep show. Will this explicit exposure take a toll on you?
Shields: I like the toll the book has taken on me. I like the challenge it’s posed to my marriage. I like that line of David Markson, quoting someone, I think—“How dare anyone think he could take a single leaf from the laurel branch of art without sacrificing his entire life?” I take such dicta very seriously. I love Kafka’s assertion that a book needs to be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. Surely, this book is such an attempt. For months after writing it, I could barely sleep. I take this as a good sign.
Guernica: You include the words of other writers from emails and other electronic and printed sources in your book, which allows you to cover an awful lot of ground in a small amount of space. Can you make a case for its brevity?
Shields: The book is around 136 pages. I think a very little bit of this hyper-confessionality goes a very long way. I also wanted to avoid bathos. I wanted to get in trouble, and then get out as quickly as I can. I always want to see myself and use myself as a vector on a larger thematic grid, to treat myself as anthropological data. I like the compression, concision, and brevity here; it feels, I hope, decorous in an indecorous book.
Guernica: I agree with you. The brevity feels appropriate for handling something as shapeshifting as a thirty-year marriage. Yet your wife still occupies so much negative space, her presence is sometimes so huge. As I was reading your book, I thought, Uh-oh, she’s not going to like this. Revelations that she shaved her pubic hair not for your benefit or titillation but because she was about to put on a swimsuit, or that she failed to grasp your hand—and rather, recoiled from it—when you tripped while hiking, are not flattering. But, you say, that despite reading the book a few times, she reacted by not reacting. We all wear masks. Is hers the one of the stoic?
Shields: She has, I think, a very complicated reaction to it, which takes the form of silence. Which amounts to me to a very powerful epilogue. If she were more talkative, as I say in the book, I wouldn’t have written the book. Given how stoic she is, I had to write the book. Given how stoic she is, how resistant to conversation, she couldn’t comment on the book, and yet she hasn’t apparently objected to its publication, just—apparently—really, really doesn’t want to talk about it. Also, she thinks it’s more about me and my damage and my wound. Far less about her and our marriage per se. Which I think is true. It also strikes me as an exceptionally generous response on her part, albeit in her own, deeply anti-verbal key.
Guernica: Your book is the strangest love letter I’ve ever read.
Shields: I do think it’s a love letter, an indirect ode to a loving “mistress.” I also think it’s a weirdly good marriage manual. I think everyone should be as honest with each other as this book aims to be toward the “you” figure in the book. Otherwise, why bother being in the same room together? The thing about life is that one day we’ll all be dead. This is our one chance to be candid, alive, vulnerable, naked.