The second thing you learn is how seriously he takes his taking seriously of literature.
There’s a striking moment in the closing pages of his new book:
“How Literature Saved My Life,”
when he tells us that he is interested only in literature that obliterates the boundary between life and art.
“Acutely aware of our mortal condition,”
“I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).”
If there were such a thing as a quintessentially Shieldsian pronouncement, this may be it, with its odd tonal mixture of the bombastic and the beseeching.
Shields wants you to know that he is a writer for whom neither life nor art is a matter to be taken lightly.
“How Literature Saved My Life” is precisely the type of book he set out to agitate for in “Reality Hunger” — his provocative 2010 policy statement on genre-noncompliant writing — at least in the narrow sense that it’s difficult to say precisely the type of book it is.
It’s an oblique and fractured memoir that approaches self-representation by way of diverse (and heavily quotation-based) considerations of the reading and writing life, but it’s also, in its way, just as much a manifesto as its predecessor.
It’s an argument for the type of book it is.
Which is to say that we are deep in Shields country here — a formally demilitarized zone over which no one mode of writing gets to claim jurisdiction for more than a paragraph or two.
The text is composed of numerous mini-essays, fragments and chunks of quotation, none of which is longer than a few pages, and some of which are as short as a few lines.
If there is anything like an organizing principle here, it’s expressed in the heading of the book’s prologue:
“All criticism is a form of autobiography.”
What immediately follows is a short essay about the extent to which Shields identifies with the 30-something poet and novelist Ben Lerner, whom he sees as “my doppelgänger of the next generation.”
This notion of identification becomes, as the book progresses, a central existential and aesthetic imperative.
Shields seems interested only in those things — works of art, people, ideas — in which he can see himself.
This, of course, is as much a device for literary self-representation as it is an advanced form of narcissism.
In theory, it’s an intriguing approach.
But in practice, it winds up making Shields seem like someone with a radically attenuated and reductive sense of the world beyond the perimeters of his own ego — a sort of high-functioning solipsist.
At one point, he riffs about identifying with George W. Bush (both are lazy, poor administrators, tend to think of their own safety in a crisis, and so forth), finally coming to an oddly self-aggrandizing conclusion:
“Every quality I despise in George Bush is a quality I despise in myself.
He is my worst self realized.”
It’s as though Shields is uninterested in any version of Bush that he can’t reduce to his own experience, and even less interested in any interpretation of Bush’s political career that goes beyond his (compellingly Shields-like) personal failings and idiosyncrasies.
Identification seems to be the primary criterion, too, in his writing about literature.
Criticism can be turned to autobiographical account — as demonstrated by Geoff Dyer in “Zona” and “Out of Sheer Rage,” Nicholson Baker in “U and I” and Elif Batuman in “The Possessed.”
The typical extent of Shields’s engagement with a work of literature, though, is to give us the gist of the book, and then to briefly note how much it means to him personally.
At one point, he provides a longish summary of William T. Vollmann’s “Butterfly Stories” and discloses that “reading this extraordinarily intimate book about the butterfly boy’s incapacity for ordinary intimacy, I couldn’t identify more closely with him if I crawled inside his skin.”
That’s it; that’s all we get. Shields’s version of self-representation through writing about literature turns out to be a limited exercise in enumeration and invocation.
The longest section is a list of “55 works I swear by,” where we get a bunch of brief descriptions of books Shields loves.
It doesn’t amount to criticism or memoir; it feels, actually, like clicking through an unusually highbrow Tumblr.
(Perhaps this social-media effect is intentional: one of the models Shields offers for how books can “coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes” is the viral Twitter phenomenon “_ My Dad Says.”)
To read “How Literature Saved My Life” is to experience a kind of cognitive dissonance, caused by Shields’s curious insistence on announcing what he’s doing, or planning to do, while never actually attempting to do any such thing.
“My favorite books,” he writes, “are candid beyond candid, and they proceed from the assumption that we’ll all be dead in a hundred years:
Here, now, in this book, I’m going to cut to the essence.”
You find yourself practically pleading with him to do so.
It’s like an Oulipian stunt, whereby the author keeps insisting on the primacy of raw, unmediated self-revelation in literature while revealing nothing much about himself beyond the sort of self-revelatory books he likes, and nothing much about those books apart from the fact that he likes them.
Similarly, his usual way of approaching important topics is to talk about how he’s approaching them — typically by way of a well-chosen quotation from another writer.
He quotes Cormac McCarthy on our inability to talk about death, “the major issue in the world,” before claiming that “I’m trying to do a very un-American thing here: talk about it.”
He goes on to quote Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace on the topic, relieving him of the need to consider it in any kind of penetrating way himself.
This is not a lapse; it’s the foundation of Shields’s collage method of writing.
There is, finally, a paradox at the center of the book.
In drawing on all these disparate elements and incorporating them into its narcissistic arrangement — in shoring these fragments against his ruins — Shields manages to thoroughly obscure himself.
For all its talk about rawness and directness, “How Literature Saved My Life” comes across as a thwarted exercise in technique and artful self-display.
By MARK O’CONNELL (*)
(*) Mark O’Connell is the author of the e-book “Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.”
He is a staff writer at The Millions, and teaches contemporary literature at Trinity College, Dublin
Source: The New York Times 8/2/2013