When I was a kid, I experienced a running commentary in my head, as if there were a tiny narrator presenting a blow-by-blow on my life. Walking to school every morning, the voice would go into frenzied overdrive, describing for my invisible audience the physical surroundings, rehashing the morning’s activities, and anticipating the potential anxieties awaiting me at school. Sometime between adolescence and adulthood, I ditched the psychic documentary crew. David Shields keeps his paid in full.
David Shields writes about himself a lot, and he doesn’t always make himself look good. In Remote, his 1996 nonfiction collection of quick takes on identity and American media culture, he dedicated a chapter to his adolescent acne: “My sophomore year of high school my zit problem reached such catastrophic proportions that once a month I drove an hour each way to receive liquid nitrogen treatments from a superserious dermatologist.” In the autobiographical novel Dead Languages, his hero grappled with a severe stutter, as Shields once did. His newest book, Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography, is a museum for Shields’s awkward attempts to fend off his tendency toward remoteness and make emotional connections. Frame by frame we watch him trying and failing to inhabit the days of his life with anything approaching comfort.
Enough About You isn’t autobiography as we’ve come to know it. The reader learns only a few details about David Shields’s life: He stuttered as a kid, he was the editor of his high school newspaper, he lives in Seattle, he loves basketball, his dad was a sportswriter, he lost his virginity to his college girlfriend Rebecca, and he read her diary. These are the facts, but in Shields’s sneaky hands they’re not quite factual: He notes in the book’s forward that Rebecca and several other key women are “composite figures.” If that isn’t a distancing technique, what is?
I mean for “David Shields” to be a highly stylized representative through whom cultural energies and all manner of mad human needs flow.
Confessing our life stories has become a national tic; people divulge secrets so easily that their monologues pile up in a heap like discarded layers of skin. Enough attempts to move beyond those self-created mythologies we save for first dates and talk show appearances. Shields wants to capture the lumps in our throats, the ambivalences and misconnections we don’t know how to express.
David Shields uses gimmicks and sidelong glances to catch the truth with its pants down. As with fellow creative nonfictioneers Hilton Als and Bernard Cooper, his graceful prose makes a meal of ephemera. Remote included one chapter constructed entirely of bumper-sticker wisdom and another that dwelled on near brushes with minor celebrities. In Enough About You, his devices include a heartfelt letter to his father and a section excerpting bad reviews of his own books. Although the bad reviews are meant to allow Shields to see himself through strangers’ eyes, they mainly serve as a clever forum for him to refute them: “My first reaction, when I reread these reviews, was to think, ‘You know, I really must figure out how to open out from self-consciousness toward reconciliation. . . . ‘ But then I realized that I don’t do reconciliation. . . . Sorry.”
If the true purpose of autobiography is, as Nabokov put it, “the following of thematic designs through one’s life,” Shields’s key motif is easy to locate, because he spends so much time pointing it out. It’s language, stupid, and the difficulty of using it to forge genuine communication.
I want to get past myself, of course I do, but the only way I know how to do this is to ride along on my own nerve endings; the only way out is deeper in.
Early in his career, Shields wrote a few conventionally structured novels. But somewhere along the line he was seduced by the fractured format of collage, and now his relationship to narrative resembles a bulimic’s to food: He can’t keep anything down. Bits of his favorite books pop up throughout Enough About You, and he lets the reader look over his shoulder as he finds himself through literature. Not surprisingly, he is particularly fond of writers who, like him, create loose assemblages of creative nonfiction: Renata Adler, who in Speedboat repeats a “schema over and over until she’s taught the reader how to think about a certain nexus of concerns.” Eduardo Galeano, whose seemingly scattershot The Book of Embraces “reveals itself to be virtually a geometric proof on the themes of love, terror, and imagination.” Nicholson Baker, writing opaquely of his own quest for opacity in U and I: “I wanted my first novel to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers.”
Enough About You is a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It exudes a razor-edged, sad-sack sensibility that’s hard to resist—like Jerry Seinfeld crossed with Lydia Davis or Maurice Blanchot. So you get a meditation on Rousseau at the start and a bizarrely lovely tribute to Bill Murray toward the end. Shields successfully mines Caddyshack and Space Jams for profundity, explaining of Murray: “He takes ‘my issues’—gloom, rage, self-consciousness, world-weariness—and offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”
There’s something lumpy in the batter that makes Enough About You feel wrong: clunky paragraphs couched within brilliant ones, textual repetitions and strained examples, a book cover illustrated with dozens of miniature photos of the author spanning childhood to middle age. Shields seems to pursue this wrongness in the hope that it will knock his autopilot out of whack long enough to reveal something hidden and startling. If we can hold our impatience at bay, the technique works, provoking the reader to rethink the clumps of chronological data that pass for biography, so inadequate to convey the slippery slopes of a human life. Somehow David Shields’ wrongs do add up to a right.