by David Shields
(Simon & Schuster) $23
The author David Shields loves language and sports. David Shields teaches creative writing at the University of Washington. David Shields spent most of the '70s indoors. The best drummer David Shields ever heard had only one arm. David Shields fancies himself an experimental writer. David Shields likes the snugness of Seattle. David Shields occasionally stutters. David Shields thinks he might be related to Brooke Shields. David Shields once wanted to say everything. David Shields, David Shields, David Shields. David Shields is in love with his reflection and he wants you to love his reflection, too.
He is not easy to describe or particularly well liked. I wonder why I can't stop thinking about him. He is, after all, a sports writer. He isn't Descartes or Rousseau or even Dave Eggers. Shields' books are merely well written. I used to have an idea of him as a once-great fiction writer who'd been struck down by self-consciousness. Instead, in book after book, I now find a deliberate progression toward a deeply self-ratifying memoir; his work, over time, has become less and less about anything else outside of this subject: David Shields. He's a writer who lives a mundane life writing mundanely about it. If anyone needs fiction, it is David Shields.
Yet, instead of creating fictional characters, Shields rehashes the image of David Shields in book after book. There's something kind of charming in this cultivated narcissism, in this unrelenting adherence to a stunted vision. It is the kind of cracked enterprise that people want writers to undertake. Just as mountain climbers are supposed to risk 1,000-foot freefalls to get to the top of a tall mountain, writers are supposed to risk humiliation and obscurity to produce something unlike anything anyone has ever read before. If there weren't risks, there wouldn't be any successes. There also wouldn't be any failures.
* * *
David Shields was born in 1956, this much is certain. The son of two activist, Jewish parents, he grew up in L.A. and later outside of San Francisco. His mother was a reporter for the Nation and his father worked for a number of nonprofits and wrote about sports. Shields, we know from his books, suffered a number of childhood maladies. In addition to a stutter, he had severe acne. On a Mother's Day trip to the beach, he broke his leg, ending his aspirations for a professional sports career. So he began to work for the school paper. In college, his interests turned to writing fiction, or rather fiction that appeared to be nonfiction, and he left his college paper (he has admitted) after it was discovered he was making stuff up. He studied writing at Brown University and then at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, the best-known creative writing program in the country.
Shields once wrote that he spent a surprising amount of time in his 20s and 30s living on grants and in writing colonies. His first professional job was at the University of Washington--he was hired in the late 1980s. He still teaches fiction writing there. His career biography is one of books written, workshops taught, and awards won.
As he has described it, in the early 1990s, while writing a novel manuscript and teaching novel writing at UW, Shields suffered a career crisis. He realized he could no longer make stuff up--that making stuff up didn't interest him at all, but that he couldn't tell the truth either.
Improbably, this paradox didn't result in writer's block.
In an April 2002 article in the Seattle Times, Shields wrote of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "I come not to bury Empire Falls but to dispraise fiction, which has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself." It is a common strategy for Shields to assume that his own sense of himself is parallel to the culture's sense of itself. Putting aside the small problem that Shields teaches fiction writing at the UW, his body of work argues that the traditional boundaries of fiction and nonfiction don't function any more. Identity is fictional in the contemporary world, Shields feels. To write a report on events involving fictional people--is that fiction or nonfiction? In such an environment, divisions between the artificial and the real become as confus- ing as Bill Clinton's famous ontological evasions over the meaning of "is."
"I don't know if I publicly repudiated fiction," Shields said months ago at a diner in Wallingford when I brought up the subject. "I love fiction. I just love fiction that pretends to be nonfiction. The way that I write fiction is to create a documentary frame around it so that it privileges idea and theme rather than plot and character." In the absence of characters, the form also privileges the author.
The author is tall and walks with a slight stoop, and was wearing a black ribbed knit shirt that made his arms look like vacuum-cleaner tubes. I hadn't seen him since 1993 (when I was his student at the UW). He shaved his head several years ago, around the time he wrote Black Planet, a book on the Sonics. In his photographs his shaved head gives him a kind of Foucaultian, egghead menace.
Along with his stutter, his acne provided an immense amount of torment for him as a teenager and decades of writerly material. Shields wrote in Dead Languages, "There were whiteheads on the nose, blackheads on toes, dense purple collections that finally burst with blood, white circles that vanished with a squeeze, dilating welts that never went away, infected wounds that cut to the bone, surface scars that looked hideous, wartlike protuberance at the side of the head." His stutter is at odds with the way that he talks--in forceful, declarative aphorisms--and even though he always likes to be the one holding the floor, he is personable. Which is one of the reasons he's such a sore tooth. If he were a rotten tooth, I'd just pull it out and be done with it.
* * *
In the early '90s, while working on a novel, Shields found himself drawn to the novel's digressions rather than the material typically regarded as the meat of the novel (that is, things like character and incident). The book found itself in print as a nonfiction collection of essays, Remote, and bears little evidence of having started life as fiction. (Remote was recently republished by the University of Wisconsin Press.) Since, Shields has published three additional works of nonfiction, including this year's Body Politic.
What Body Politic confirms is that Shields refuses to pass beyond the surface of anything he observes. He has been cultivating shallowness and vanity in his nonfiction for a while now. Black Planet, rather than being structured around characters striving for goals, moves mechanically along the structure of the basketball season. Each game provides a point for Shields' random associations and purely surface preoccupations. The book brings together unlike surfaces--white fans and black athletes, a literary writer and the Sonics press team--and as entertaining as it sometimes is, the book is superficial and redundant. (According to a review by an exasperated reader, "NY Sonics Fan," posted on Amazon.com: "His dime-store sociological insights into the way black and white Seattle citizens interact are difficult to wade through, with absolutely no payoff once you reach the other side.")
Here is a typical passage from Black Planet:
One of the surprises to me of adulthood is how important money is--the degree to which feelings, in marriage, flow through money. Feeling guilty that I'm going to be gone so many nights over the next six months at Sonics' "home" games 40 miles away in Tacoma, I spend too much money on [my wife] Laurie's birthday, e.g., buying her a Coach bag. She feels appreciated; she gets dressed up; she looks great; we go out to dinner; we make love, though that's not quite the right term--it's more like fucking: a rough physicality that I realize later is my attempt to imitate the athletes I spend so much time watching and thinking about.
Even explaining why this passage is so stupid is stupid. It is self evident to the point of banality that money as a medium of exchange always becomes a token not just for cash but for just about anything including feeling or whatever. But you get a sense from the writing that Shields thinks this is big, necessary stuff. It's about as necessary as observing that a basketball is orange. What's infuriating about this passage isn't that the word "love" is only mentioned and discarded in regard to a fuck, in itself a term that does not associate itself with "feeling." What's infuriating about this passage--and about so much of Shields' work--is that its literalness is passed off as analysis. We don't know if Shields wants, himself, to be fucked or if he wants to fuck a basketball player. We don't know who, or why he associates sexual gratification with these athletes. In the absence of an argument--or, if we're talking about one of his novels, a plot--the surfaces and the connections between surfaces present themselves as an endless statement of the obvious.
Strangely, in his most recent book, Body Politic, Shields inadvertently allows fragments of plot to creep into his nonfiction. "I was a monomaniacal 5'4", 120-pound freshman basketball player... who, somehow, was supremely confident that he was destined to become a professional athlete," Shields writes in an unabashed Oprah-style recovery narrative, an essay called "The Wound and the Bow." He's writing about that fateful Mother's Day beach trip when his dreams ended; he broke his femur and, after a botched operation, spent a year in a brace. By the time he'd recovered, "Sports no longer meant much to me. All that physical expression had gone inside; language was my new channel." (Lest the reader miss the significance of this essay, Shields handily provides the moral in its closing passages. "In The Wound and the Bow," he explains, "Edmond Wilson analyzes how various writers, such as Dickens, Wharton, and Hemingway, used the central wound of their life as the major material of their art.")
* * *
Rather than yielding to the fundamental urge of narrative--one thing inevitably causing another--Shields struggles to find something, anything, to organize his material. In other words, he has hung the authenticity of his books on the presentation of himself as a narrator rather than the authenticity of one thing leading to the next. In Black Planet, Shields presents himself as a narrator honest enough to confess to his fantasies. "Making love with Laurie, I feel like I am--I imagine that I am--as tall, thin, and muscular as Gary Payton." In Enough About You, after reading the negative reviews of his books, he flaunts--a bit defensively--his imperviousness to criticism: "This is what I learned: I'm right. They're wrong. (Smiley face.)"
Even his autobiographical novel, Dead Languages, shies away from entangling the reader in any illusion that one event has lead to the next. The narrator, Jeremy Zorn, tells the story from some place after the events of the book have occurred. When an event is documented, such as the pivotal moment when Zorn attempts to commit suicide by hurling himself from a 20-foot cliff, it comes as a dramatic illustration of some point in Zorn's ongoing exegesis. "Suddenly I was seized with the perception that I had a multitude of debilitating personal problems and there was no cure for any of them," Zorn tells us. In a typical novel, moments like this arrive as the result of an event sequence. In a Shields novel, it's merely another bullet point in a flow of random self-centeredness.
It's almost as if Shields actually doesn't know how to plot a novel. "And how can the same story get told--why does the same story need to be told--over and over and over and over?" he asks in Body Politic. Why? Because like forming sentences, taking steps, or farting, stories are a basic function of living. It is Shields' need to innovate on a function that does not require innovation that has led him to this state.
"The novel is this big baggy monster," Shields said during our conversation in Wallingford. "I like to think of Henry James' definition--a novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something the matter with it--as a really useful distinction." That's about as useful as saying: a novel has a lot of pages, a cover, and is, like, written by a novelist. For a working author--better yet, for a person employed as a creative writing teacher--you'd hope for something a little, well, more.
* * *
Somewhere in the late 19th century some authors became convinced that the novel was ultimately always about the author--meaning that a novel, even one about the rise of a Midwestern basketball player, is really always about the person who wrote it. For a certain kind of novel, and a certain kind of novelist, this is the case. Proust's novel, In Search of Lost Time, was called by Harold March, in 1948, "the greatest exploration of a self by anyone, including Freud." Shields, wishing to find a fresh take on Proust, seems to have chosen as his life's work to explore himself. Or, more exactly, the reflection of himself. This is Shields' literary enterprise.
Dramatizing his reflection, unfortunately, results in overblown, redundant, narcissistic tracts. In book after book, Shields reuses the same autobiographical incidents, and sometimes remarkably similar paragraphs. In 1989's Dead Languages, on the subject of a university library, he writes: "Sometimes I'd arrive at eight in the morning, leave at midnight, then arrive again at eight in the morning, leave at midnight. Sometimes I'd do that for weeks. Sometimes I'd bring my toothbrush." In 2002's Enough About You, he writes: "In college, I took curious pride in being the last person to leave the library nearly every night for four years." In 1994's Remote, he writes: "I closed the library down every night for four years; at the end of one particularly productive night, I actually scratched into the concrete wall above my carrel, 'I shall dethrone Shakespeare.'" Reading his books back to back, you begin to suspect Shields has a boilerplate folder somewhere full of the 35-odd scenes of his life that he would just like to recombine into book-length combinations until his death. Read any one of Shields' books and you've read them all.
Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names and Misplaced Alice. A collection of stories, The Moss Gatherers, will be released in April by StringTown Press, and a novel, Shoot the Buffalo, is forthcoming from Clear Cut Press.