It is no surprise to see aphorism alive and thriving in our current celebrity climate. The forgotten, it may be assumed, never said anything interesting, whereas choice words of the famous live forever at cocktail parties and in book reviews. To carry a portfolio of pithy quotations is to suggest you have a direct line to the minds of geniuses who came before. And it may even imply, whether or not you fulfill the promise, that you hold vast reserves of brilliance yourself.
David Shields is almost unbearably conscious of this in his latest book, How Literature Saved My Life. The pages of this harried interrogation of life and art are rife with the intrusion of others’ wit on matters at hand, either by explicit interruption (“Tolstoy: ‘The meaning of life is life’ ”), or by Shields’ parroting (“Isn’t it pretty to think so—”). The impression given is thus of a voice constantly deferring to and riffing off others, bold names he cannot help but compulsively call upon even as he is attempting to construct something new.
This is not an unusual anxiety. But that Shields makes it seem especially fraught will not surprise anyone familiar with his work. His last book, Reality Hunger, was composed entirely of numbered passages, most of which were quoted from other artists and thinkers (and unattributed until a reluctantly compiled appendix). Despite its catch-as-catch-can argument for the ascendancy of collage (the book is, essentially, a form selling itself), a real pleasure of Reality Hunger was in being uncertain who said what, as if we had slipped in the back door of Shields’ mind to find all its accumulated knowledge on index cards arranged on the floor.
If only that pleasure carried into How Literature Saved My Life. In his latest effort, Shields continues the crusade for a “bleeding edge between genres” and against narrative fiction, but less effectively. The problem is partly one of familiarity. Though the shape has shifted, the argument remains the same: that the only way to faithfully capture our fragmented age is to write fragments about fragmentation. A first-year composition class might call this the imitative fallacy; Shields calls it the future. To a student having trouble turning ambitious notes into a book, he advises, “The notes are the book … I promise you.” It’s a dangerous vow, and a sad one, as if our creative chromosome has become so damaged we can no longer spawn anything whole.
Shields assures us the other arts, from television to painting, have already embraced this self-consciously scrap-based era of ours. Why should writing lag behind? Yet the passage in How Literature Saved My Life that speaks with the most clarity—and also the most beauty— about these issues happens to be the most formally conventional. A college neighbor named Rebecca keeps a diary in which she records her infatuation with Shields. Furtively reading the diary gives the young David courage to make the first move; later, it provides the excitement in their brief affair. After each encounter he sneaks into her room to read what she has written about him, all of it laudatory and purple. When he confesses that he has been reading her diary, she forgives him, but the magic is gone.
It’s a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story, filled with the gratifyingly particular details found in the best fiction (“She often left wet shirts hanging all over the room and they’d ripple eerily in the wind”; “Every night she’d wrap her legs around me and scream … ‘Oh, my son.’ ”). The narrative commitment is so complete, only rarely does Shields as author feel the need to remind us he’s still there, making sure we know “These are near verbatim quotes,” as if to fend off before it is even asked: Did this really happen?
It proves Shields both right and wrong when I say it doesn’t matter. Even if Rebecca’s diary never existed, the truth to be gleaned from it would be no less powerful. All the worry about emotional alienation, about a life that does not feel real unless it is under observation, is in this brief tale of six pages. Shields must know this, having replicated the story not only from Reality Hunger but an earlier book, Enough About You.
The rest of How Literature Saved My Life, however, seems content to keep circling the theme, poking at it with epigrammatic toothpicks. So determined is Shields to “articulate truth” and nothing but, he ends up with lines like, “There is no wisdom, only many wisdoms—beautiful and delusional.” It sure sounds pretty, but I have no idea what it means. He also performs the curious trick of saying a lot about himself but revealing little:
And yet I’m also very skeptical of easy modernist claims of art’s refuge from life’s storms. I’m very drawn to the way in which a life can be an art of sorts or a failed art and a life-lived-told can be art as well. I often seem to be defending the ineluctable modality of the real.
The way he operates in degrees here—“I’m also very”; I’m very drawn to”; “I often seem”—certainly looks a lot like the digressive, feeling-one’s-way mode we now value in essays, but it has the weightlessness of skywriting, punctuated not by original thought but by a reference to James Joyce.
These are some of the book’s more venial sins. Among its mortal ones are inapt comparisons that threaten to kick out the legs from under its ideological platform. In one paragraph Shields gracefully argues that the horror of war in Vietnam cannot be described, but in the next paragraph suggests that the fictional No Country for Old Men does just that (the movie of course, not the novel). In contemplation of Milan Kundera’s statement that writing about the personal and political is not hard when “the cannon of a Soviet tank is wedged into the back window,” Shields describes an epiphany he had while watching a juggler on television.
I realized that part of what moved me to tears was that I was watching this on TV. … [T]he degree of removal was central to my emotional engagement with the scene. Which to me was the answer to Kundera’s Soviet tank: the American equivalent is the ubiquity of the camera, the immense power of the camera lens on our lives, on my life, on the way I think about life.
We should be thankful, I suppose, that cameras don’t shoot bullets. But these quibbles are all symptomatic to me of a larger mix-up of priorities. Shields is worried about literature. That is clear. But he reads, somehow, like a revolutionary charging into battle while commissioning a statue for his deeds. Instead of plumbing his own depths, like his idols Proust (whom he admits he can no longer read) and Montaigne, Shields seeks his reflection in every surface. We learn this most decisively in his fatal misapprehension of Montaigne, the essay form’s hero-father:
The essayist is not interested in himself per se but in himself as symbolic persona, theme carrier, host for general human tendencies.
The opposite is true. Montaigne’s charm lies in how little presumption he makes about his role as “theme carrier.” He’s interested in his own thoughts alone, so much so that it becomes a form of humility. “I don’t know if it happens with others as it does with me,” is one version of this famous sentiment. I found it by flipping to a page in Montaigne at random. The particular essay felt unfamiliar to me, so I took a moment to read the rest. Its title? “Of the Vanity of Words.” It’s comforting to know we can still learn from the old masters, and not simply quote them.
How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields. Knopf.