The (Good) Trouble With David Shields

The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn and Power,  by David Shields, Mad Creek books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press, 2019, pb 139 pp. no price provided.

 

About a month ago, I sent a copy of a new book, Locomotive, to David Shields, a writer I’ve known and admired for thirty years now.  The book was an account of a pretty awful divorce, and self-published because of the climate of censorship that currently exists in Canada. If you’re white and male in this country, you’re supposed to tug your forelock and shut your trap.

You think I’m exaggerating?  About a year ago, a novel by 85-year-old West Coast icon George Bowering, No One, which was a highly literate retelling of The Oddysey—and specifically, the troubling-to-contemporaries relationship between Odysseus and Penelope—was discovered, by the publishers’ female production and publicity staff to be guilty of sexism and gynophobia. These “discoveries” were made partway through the production process for the book, and resulted in the censoring female staff refusing to have anything further to do with the book, including, I presume, refusing to read Homer.  Production of No One eventually did resume and was completed, but when the book was released it received minimal publicity beyond the tale of what happened during production. Not surprisingly, it sank like a stone.

I’ll leave the larger implications of that particular mess for another occasion, but suffice it to say that it left me reluctant to put  Locomotive through a conventional publishing process, or to even enquire if that process was any longer available to an older, white male writer in Canada.

Shields responded instantly and enthusiastically when he received the book: he wrote an articulate and approving appreciation of it, and asked what he could do to move the book forward.  And then, a day or two later, he did what I’ve come to think of as “a David Shields”.

He asked some startlingly specific questions about the physical appearance and physical traits of the book’s central female character.  I responded as accurately and unguardedly. The questions were interesting; what was Shields up to?  Then came the “David Shields” move. He asked me if I had a photograph of her—or, rather, the real world person the character in the novel might or might not be based on.  (I’m sure you get my drift with this indirectness, and his).

Now, as every writer knows, Shields’ request simply isn’t permitted. It transgressed the most sacred boundary of the Fictional Agreement, and it was, well, massively indiscreet. But this is David Shields asking the questions, a writer I like and admire, and so, Fictional Agreement and discretion be damned, I wanted to know what he was after—what he wanted to know. It was certain to be a hell of a lot more interesting than my authorial privacy, or my fidelity to the Fictional Agreement and other conventional literary behaviors, with which I have nearly as shaky a relationship as Shields has.

I went through my picture files, and there it was.  It was a photograph of the two protagonists of Locomotive, or, rather, the two real world persons the primary combatants of Locomotive were (very loosely, of course,) based on. In the photograph, which is set in intensified black and white, the woman is staring straight at the camera lens. She’s dressed to the nines, her hair up, lipstick and makeup perfect, and she is gazing at the camera lens as if she, and her ambitions, are the only things in the entire world that count. Her expression, which is neither quite a smile nor a grin, suggests that this cat has just swallowed an extremely tasty canary. The man, noticeably older and wearing a tuxedo, is deep in the photograph’s background even though he’s nearly as close to the camera lens as the woman is. He leans over her, kissing her shoulder lovingly—or is it with resignation? And he is breathing in her scent.

It’s a picture worth 40,000 words, not just a thousand, a near-perfect visual articulation of how the relationship fucked up, and it tells you far more than it intends about why it fucked up.  I’d had the photograph in my possession for years, and hadn’t looked at it once while the book was in production and might never have realized what it was had Shields not made his utterly out-of-line indiscreet request to see it.

But there’s more here than mere curiosity that led to a social indiscretion. As a writer, David Shields is systematically curious—and systematically indiscreet. It’s why he’s a genius, or if that’s too rich for you, it’s why he’s among a very select group of truly unique and original writers now working in the English language.  It’s also why you should read The Trouble With Men. The book violates every rule of discretion in its attempt to articulate what’s going on with men inside a civilization where they’ve been declared both biologically and socially superfluous—not to mention terminally superficial.

David Shields, “The Trouble with Men.”

Shields’ primary cognitive tools, here as in all his books, are his considerable intellectual courage, and an instinctive cultural insolence: he’s used both to remove most of the filters from his writing by which Western civilization imposes normality.  I don’t know enough about his personal life to be able to say that he’s removed them from his domestic life, but I suspect not, and certainly not with the thoroughness with which he’s yanked them out of his writing. I’ve known a few people across the years who don’t have those filters—several of them are or were writers—and they aren’t people who thrive socially or artistically.  They tend to institutionalize themselves intermittently, and a few have suicided: it’s not easy living without those filters. It’s the cognitive equivalent of trying to survive without skin.

Shields’ first-resort literary technique is assemblage/collage and he deploys it effectively in The Trouble With Men to mask his disabled filters with quotes from others—some writers, some not—that are likewise unfiltered. I suspect that Shields had a private agenda for the book: his marriage seems to be in trouble throughout it, and you can feel him searching for answers—consolatory, perhaps, but his curiosity—and his instinctive insolence—prevent him from looking for rationalizations: he really wants to know why men are in trouble and why he’s in trouble personally. He’s also refreshingly wary of mansplaining anything away, and his sense of humour, never asleep for long, keeps him from anything maudlin. His invitation is to the reader’s critical intelligence; their willingness to look at the odder perspectives and angles of masculinity. Male readers looking for reasons to continue being assholes probably ought to look elsewhere; this ain’t self-help.

Whenever I read a David Shields book, I turn into a book collector’s nightmare: I scribble all over what I’m reading. By the time I’ve finished the book, it looks ten years old; the text is defaced, and the inside covers are filled with notes. Some are page numbers, reference tracks, but others are active responses. David Shields makes me think harder than any contemporary writer short of Geoff Dyer. At one point I discovered myself trying to articulate the idea that most people take the Oedipus complex too literally, and then asking myself whether this was out of respect for Freud, or a wish that sexuality was more extreme—and thus less nuanced—than it is. Such perambulations occurred at least a hundred times over the book’s 139 pages.

I’d provide some quotes from the book to give readers a sense of how this stimulating it is, but when I tried to extract a short parcel of them, I found myself reading along for eight or ten pages, and losing track of what I was extracting: the book has tentacles. So let me summarize in the simplest way:  get this book. Read this guy.

 

1324 words, August 20, 2020

 

 

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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