“When did we have to start working so hard to hear our own hearts?”
~ The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead, David Shields
David Shields and I seem to be obsessed with many of the same pop cult phenomena. A few examples from his latest bookollagessay, How literature saved my life:
Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. Shortbus. Kundera da man. Joni Mitchell’s getting-dumped-sucks-yo album, Blue. Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Terry Castle. Dillard. Duras’s The Lover. Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Breaking Bad. W.G. Sebald. Slaughterhouse Five. Frederick Barthelme’s line, “…these nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body” (a line I’d very much like to steal). “The essays/diaries/notebooks of handsome male writers,” Sebastian Junger, Camus, Henry Miller. Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale.” Nicholson Baker. Grandmaster Flash. J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand. Amy Hempel’s story, “Weekend.” The list could go on.
I’ve given each of these a good deal of thought, and so has Shields it seems, and yet, we’ve somehow arrived at very different conclusions about many of them. It’s like, on paper, we should totally be friends, but somehow we can’t just sit down and enjoy Die Hard together because he’s all like, It’s a metaphor for the felt helplessness and misplaced rage of thirtysomething white men, and I’m like, Hey! McClane just ran over a bunch of broken glass barefoot! Our stars are just misaligned like that.
This really struck me as I read his blitzed-out rock-fan overflow praise of the Built to Spill song, “Randy Described Eternity,” the grungy-psychedelic-with-two-minutes-of-swirling-distortion-layered-with-steely-melody-that-enfolds-your-synapses-like-a-baby’s-swaddle-and-if-you’re-drunk-or-stoned-or-prone-to-any-kind-of-grandiose-thinking-‘bout-life-you-will-ride-this-wave-to-epiphany opening track on BTS’s first major-label release (Warner Bros., 1997). Built to Spill helped get me through my early twenties, which is to say: I’m a fan, too, Shields! and “Randy...” is a great track, for sure, but that said, as interesting an album as Perfect from Now On might be, I was always more into There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (Up Records, 1994), which has, I think, more heart. Heart being important to me.
I imagine meeting Shields at an after-reading and getting into it with him. He yells, all tall and fierce, “All I said was that “Randy…” is the band at their most alive! We’re at our most alive contemplating scale and eternity and our comparatively trifling selves!” To which I respond, in this fantasy, “I don’t buy that we’re at our most alive contemplating vastness, which is to say death. No sir, I say we’re most alive when we simply lose ourselves to living.”
Truth is, I’m not in such a hurry to overthink this thing called life, which Shields has made a living of doing. I’d rather just put on headphones and drift. Call me a rotten essayist, fine, whatever. Or maybe, I just hold certain pieces of life sacred. Have at all that literature and film and human experience—all of that bourgeois entertainment is fair game—but seriously, Shields, I wish you’d left Amy Hempel alone. That’s where my real beef lies.
I've been thinking about David Shield's interpretation of Hempel's story, “Weekend,” a story so good, I often teach it as an essay. He has this to say:
AMY HEMPEL’S “WEEKEND” ends happily, but it has a very carefully orchestrated undertone of sadness, even despair. The story is divided nearly in half: the calm and the storm-for-now-averted. The first section is an evocation of the absolute epitome of middle-class familial contentment and pleasure: the weekend, kids, dogs, softball, drinks. There are the faintest hints of trouble: a broken leg and the dogs’ “mutiny,” but all is more or less joy.
Section break. Time passes.
Postprandial activities of no consequence: the adults smoke, throw horseshoes (a near ringer; this much heartbreak I can live with), pick ticks off sleeping dogs, repel mosquitoes. We’re on what feels like Long Island, and the men are readying to return to the city for work the next morning.
I come from a land of the most beautiful summers, of weekend sun, get-togethers, and kids, and dogs, and lawn games, and cocktails followed by barbecue followed by maybe another cocktail with your pie. Here, there are post-meal hoops, rounds of fetch with the dogs, and honest-to-god conversations with neighbors over waist-high white picket fences. Eventually we take to the lawn chairs for the late sunset, inevitably staying on well into dark, because these moments—these nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body—are precious. What I’m saying is that Hempel’s scene is familiar to me. In fact, I read it and think, That’s mine. I own that shit—hands off, David Shields.
Yet he goes on:
When the men kiss the women good night—their whiskers scratching the women’s cheeks—the women want the men not to shave but to “stay,” which is the story’s perfect final word. Conveying both sweetness but also the command of a dog’s owner to a dog and the strong implication that sooner than later, the bewhiskered men will wind up like the dogs, straying, “barking, mutinous.”
He finishes: “Here, right now, this is gorgeous. Please let’s keep it so. As soon as I think this/say this, I’ve ruined paradise.” And so David Shields has ruined my little paradise—cracked my worldview, just a little. Or at least he’s exposed the crack already there.
Worth noting (i): Shields is the only writer who can really hold my attention as I push through CIRCUIT 2, LEVEL 10 on the stationary bike. His writing just feels so...urgent.
We all bring our selves to what we read, and this means we often read things differently—I get that. But does this mean some of us are reading wrong? Or are we supposed to adopt a whatever-fits-my-cultural-story brand of relativism here, too? I bring to Hempel’s “Weekend” some very particular thoughts about shaving, being told to go shave, and occasionally being granted permission not to. Is it wrong to let this bias affect my interpretation?
Every day and a half or so, my beard pops out. I’m more a George Clooney (surprisingly patchy) than a Hugh Jackman, but in any case, my wife hates it. Science suggests women prefer stubbly cheeks over the clean-shaven, but she just wants to avoid beard-burn, which is understandable, and so I continue to scrape my face smooth every other day. I suffer this because my wife likes smooth cheeks, and I like my wife’s cheeks close to mine. You do what you have to.
Still, some days I resist. Some days I just want to be rough. Some days I want to feel like, maybe, with a new wardrobe, I could be mistaken for Sly Stallone, Cobra. Some days I just have better things to do with those ten minutes. I usually call those days Saturday. Only the President shaves on the weekend. So by Saturday night, or Sunday morning, as I sidle up to rub cheeks, my wife inevitably dodges my advance with an Ow! Shave your face! But occasionally, occasionally, in the morning, as I set the coffee down, and stand up from the table to go undertake the day’s grooming, she’ll say, Oh, don’t bother—just stay with me for ten more minutes. And that’s what I live for, that “stay.” Stay, not as a command, not even as a plea, but as an invitation, an invitation I always accept, because I don’t really want to shave anyway. I just want to be close.
In my world, that perfect last line of Hempel’s, that “Stay,” is a sign of acceptance, of these women accepting their partners, faults and all. I’ve always interpreted that “Stay” as a sort of absolution. It never occurred to me that Hempel is actually suggesting the inevitably that men will stray, or want to, and that their ladies might subsequently fall into the role of “owner,” trying to hold some kind of animal discipline over them. What a twisted relationship that would be.
Gut check (i): At one point in The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead, Shields tells us the length of his erect penis. I’ve been thinking about the reason for this reveal, and it’s effect. “There’s no holding back here,” he seems to be saying. It’s a demonstration. He’d doing what he claims writers should: write like you’ll be dead in a hundred years. Because you will be. He will be. We will be. Why not let it all hang out?
Shields tells a joke he picked up from his back doctor, Dr. Herring: There are three kinds of married sex. When you’re first married, you’re so lusty you have sex in every room in the house. After several years, the passion dies down a little, and you confine sex to the to the bedroom. After many years, you pass each other in the hallway and say, “Fuck you.”
I get the humor, but found this too sad, too cliché to raise a laugh. Surely that’s not really how it is, not for anyone. At least not for everyone. At least not for anyone I know.
For Shields, behind Hempel’s “Stay” lies an implication that men will want to stray, that we are, if nothing else, wandering penises, while our partners remain stay-at-home-nurturers just trying to hold the idyll together. And I don’t see it. Instead, I see loveliness, love. I see a woman asking for nothing but her man’s presence, and a man simply allowed—with no demands being made—to be present. No need to present himself, to work, to make money, no need to prove anything—able to just to be present. The woman just wants the man to be there, with her. And that’s where the man wants to be. Isn’t this what all men really want? That perfect “Stay” ending?
So Shields says to me, “You must be, like, what? Sixteen? You’re so naïve.”
Worth noting (ii): I do wish Shields’s books came with an index. I’ve had to re-read these books several times to find those great lines I half remembered. Maybe that’s the idea. What a killer genius, this Shields.
In truth, I get the humor of Dr. Herring’s joke, and it’s not just that I find it too sad to laugh at—I’m afraid to laugh. What if it’s true? My wife and I have been together for what seems like a happy forever, but really it’s only been half a dozen years or so. When an acquaintance recently cheated on his partner, and I expressed an indignant How could he? a friend replied, “Well, life is long.” And I admit, this seemed then, and seems now like wisdom. But I’m not crazy about where this line of thinking lands us.
I get the doctor’s joke, but it seems imprudent to laugh. A terrible jinx. I don’t want to call the kettle black. So I don’t want to laugh. I don’t even want to acknowledge. I just want to put on headphones and drift.
Shields writes, “Edward Young wrote, ‘All men think all men mortal but themselves. The ancient Indian epic Mahābhāratam asks, ‘Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.’”
Talking about the end of “Weekend” Shields writes: “Here, right now, this is gorgeous. Please let’s keep it so. As soon as I think this/say this, I’ve ruined paradise.” And so he’s ruined my little paradise—cracked my worldview, just a little. Or at least he’s exposed the crack already there. Or at least he’s suggested the presence of a crack, the possibility of a crack, the inevitability of a crack—and I don’t like it.
Worth noting (iii): Incidentally, The thing about life… is an awesome book, awesome and—with his father’s stories, in which his father is always the hyperbolic, crushing, immortal-until-suddenly-not hero—heartbreaking. This book throbs. And similar to Reality Hunger, much of the text consists of quotes: discovered, selected, assembled into a Shields-consciousness collage. But here we get names and sources, if not actual citations—and I appreciate this. Letting us know where these lines come from, who they come from, has the effect of cueing us in, rather than shutting us out. By giving me all these names Shields is opening that much more of the world to me. This book isn’t just packed with ideas for me to ponder in solipsistic rapture, it’s a roadmap leading to source after source, leading me into the world—and suddenly the world, with all it’s possibilities, and all its nooks for exploring, feels infinite.
Shields and I do agree, Hempel’s last line, “Stay,” is perfect.
I (desperately?) want to believe this last line is not a plea, but an invitation. Shields hears a woman beseeching a man: “Stay, don’t stray.” But for me that Stay is an invite, a consent, an acquiescence to the weekend beard, because ultimately, though she may prefer smooth cheeks, it’s having that cheek near, just then, that counts. It’s not about a future of spousal tension and turmoil; it’s about that single, pleasant moment—the kind of moment that so much happiness is built on.
How we interpret a scene like that last beautiful porch-sitting/Stay bit in Hempel’s story must reflect the state of our own lives, the state of our own relationships, or a least how we view ourselves, and our relationships. How we interpret what we read is perhaps just a reflection of where we are in life, and it seems Shields and I are a ways apart.
Now he gets to play the ole Life Experience card.
Admittedly, I’m a relative newcomer to the institution of marriage; I’m thirty-one, married for a few years, with my wife for a cool half dozen—some folks, I hear, are married for half a century or more, and who’s to say how I might look back on this ridiculous sincerity of mine in a few decades. Don’t we always come to think better of what we thought in our youth? Should I just assume Shields is in the right here, and that I will eventually come to agree with the wisdom of his interpretation?
Gut check (ii): Someone once suggested to me that the best writing is the writing that gets you writing. Reading Shields, I can’t even keep up with my own wheels turning. His books make me feel like I can write anything, anyhow. Like the world really is my oyster. Nay, like the world is my giant freakin’—Tridacna gigas—clam.
I don’t know. I’d suppose I’d rather be a naïf than a cynic—at least when it comes to this, weekend evenings with family and friends and the ones I love. At least for now. At least for now, I’d rather not overthink it. I want this story’s simple magic to persist.
Shields: “Since when does the world care what you want?”
Shields, schoolin’ me again: “Everybody tries, no one wins, everyone dies.”
Shields speaking to his father, to me, to you: “You find this information soul-killing; I find it thrilling, liberating. Life, in my view, is simple, tragic, and eerily beautiful.”
Craig Reinbold helps manage the Essay Daily. His work appears in recent/forthcoming issues of the Gettysburg Review, Brevity, Gulf Coast, New England Review, Hotel Amerika, Ruminate, The Journal, The American Reader, and a number of other more or less literary places.