“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once complained. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”
His interlocutor replied, “They’d do that, too if their agents could fix it.”
Truly, all things come to pass. The essayist David Shields has written a new book, “The Trouble With Men,” which he describes as “a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits and possibilities of human intimacy.” More bluntly, it’s about sleeping with his wife — and addressed to her. “Do I love you? Do you love me? What kind of marriage do we want?” he asks her. “Do you like making love with me? Do you love making love with me? (Don’t answer.)”
Despite the broad diagnosis promised by the title, the focus is narrow, personal — and frank. Shields breaks the sound barrier for indiscretion. He quotes Harold Brodkey: “I don’t see the point of privacy.” (Fittingly, Brodkey’s other appearance here features him trying to pick up Shields at a gym in 1983.)
The book is structured as an investigation into Shields’s own psyche and particular tastes. He is masochistic to his marrow — not just sexually. “I check the Mariners score on my phone, hoping they’ve won but needing them to lose.” He relishes his negative reviews. His entire career owes something to his desire for punishment. “Throughout various books, I’ve quoted and ‘misquoted’ hundreds of sentences, without ‘proper’ attribution — in order to advance a particular literary, aesthetic and philosophical principle but also as a way to be ‘bad’ and get spanked (for being bad)?”
Alas, he has been more frequently celebrated instead — for works, like “Reality Hunger,” that railed against lumbering, outmoded narratives (the novel) in favor of fleet new forms: fragments, rafts of sampled quotations, blurred genres. “The Trouble With Men” reprises this method; much of it is a collage of quotes, from his touchstones like Seneca and the literary critic Leslie Fiedler but also Reddit, porn chat rooms and Bernie Madoff’s mistress.
In the past, I found Shields’s project occasionally impressive and more often exasperating. He’s fatally attracted to the manifesto and strident pronouncements on life and literature. But in this latest work, some of his masks and bombast fall away. He is wry and self-deprecating. (That quote from Larkin above — I got it from Shields.) This book had originally been conceived as an email exchange with the writer Brenda Phillips, but Shields realized that “the gulf was simply too wide: She’s so much better looking than I am — and as a result has had so many more sexual experiences — that we had next to nothing to talk about.”
For the first time, this writer becomes good company — thankfully, for we have to travel a long way with him, deep into the labyrinth of his past. “How did I get wired this way? I don’t get it,” Shields writes. Did he learn to eroticize what hurt and frightened him as a child? (Yes.) “As a little kid, I would start every morning by promising myself (and inevitably failing to live up to the promise), Don’t cry today.” His father was a manic-depressive and “ECT devotee,” in and out of mental institutions; his mother mocked him, hit him, hated him and taught him to hate himself. He unwraps all his wounds, all the conceivable sources that nurtured in him this perplexing desire to be humiliated: childhood bullying, his stutter, germ phobias, acne and high, feminine voice. “Was I breast-fed?” he pesters his bewildered 80-year-old father. “Method of potty-training?”
“No one is ever cured of anything; that much seems obvious,” Shields writes. “Which brings me to you.” This “you” is his wife — a woman Shields describes as painfully and thrillingly indifferent to him. “Do you think it’s possible that I’ve enlisted you to cure my heart by killing it?” he writes, before accusing her of mild crimes: She refuses to hold his hand in public and is excessively practical. On one occasion she failed to keep an embarrassing secret of his.
“The Trouble With Men” is unabashedly queasy. Reading about Shields’s lust for Pippa Middleton ranks among the more depressing literary experiences of my life. But it’s curious that he doesn’t reckon more with what it means to expose himself (and his wife) so openly — is it another bid for humiliation? Nor does he reckon with the fact that there is almost always something preening and aggressive in the act of enumerating of one’s own weaknesses. “I’m always the poor pup who loses,” Shields whimpers — like all the top dogs apparently: “Was there, by the way, any ‘major’ modernist writer — Kafka, Woolf, Proust, Mann, Joyce, Eliot — who wasn’t flagrantly masochistic?”
I don’t want to be too hard on Shields, not least because I suspect he would enjoy it. I often found this book beguiling, and moving. There is always the temptation, in writing about sex, to sound superior, arch, immune to its power. But Shields writes from a place of genuine curiosity and confusion. He is ridiculous and brave, he never conflates sincerity with genuine candor, and he poses the kinds of questions that only ever bring trouble (and are the only kind worth reading about) — about sex, self-knowledge and the “theater” of our wounds. Can we recover from who we are? Would we want to?
“My mother reviled me,” Shields writes. “I can feel that in every footfall. My half-brother’s mother adored him, which has made him fat and sassy and self-satisfied and happy. Poor bastard.”