No surprise then that quotations also abound in Shields’s latest, “The Trouble With Men,” an exploration of sex, love, porn, power and marriage — specifically, Shields’s own, which seems to be foundering. The “you” Shields addresses throughout the book is his wife. She never comes into clear focus, but nonetheless we feel her effect on him. He writes: “You, my darling, are the perfect muse, a ceaseless spur; I truly love how little you like any of my books — including this one?” By the end of Chapter 1, we know that Shields has “always identified with the person beaten down,” and we worry about whether his wife is spurring him a bit too ceaselessly.
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Other male authors have written autobiographically about their troubling personal lives — David Mura, Michael Ryan and Richard Rhodes are three that come to mind. Shields shares bits of his history, too. We learn about his first lover and about his mother, “a terrifying figure,” and his teenage stuttering, which shaped his attitude toward sex. But his autobiography cannot stand alone; it needs company. So Shields quotes actor Albert Brooks, who also had a sick father, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who defines love as “giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it,” a dynamic that aptly describes Shields’s own marriage as he presents it in the book.
By linking his thoughts and predilections with those of others, Shields offers the reader proof that other men feel as he does, want what he wants. In essence, Shields mounts his argument by contextualizing the thoughts of others, which bolsters the truth of his book’s title: men, collectively, are trouble. But this contextualizing can be tricky when, from one paragraph to the next, we don’t know whose words we’re reading until we get to the end of the paragraph where a bracketed name might appear. When the bracketed name is female, the quote carries an added oomph. Susie Bright, journalist and advice columnist known as Susie Sexpert, appears more than once.
This interlinking takes getting used to, but the payoff can be huge when it’s the poignant examples from Shields’s own life. In one paragraph, he asks of his wife, “Why do all of your favorite books about marriage include a dead spouse?” Chapter 3, “This Is the Part Where You’re Supposed to Say You Love Me,” is an especially sad chapter: “I look to you for sympathy,” Shields writes. “You offer none.”
The paragraphs become increasingly personal, sexually raunchy and unquotable in a family newspaper. But they set us up for Chapter 4, “Porn: An Interlude,” a destination Shields probably had in mind since Page 1. The 60-something Shields is candid about his sensual diversions: peep shows, massage parlors and sex shops. Shields likes the “detachment” porn gives him, but he’s also overcome with shame: “Alone in a hotel room, I will quickly create an area overflowing with garbage. That area is me.” The assumption is porn makes other men feel this way, too.
By book’s end, we realize that Shields himself is a collage, coming to us in bits and pieces, slipping in and out of the words of others, offering up questions but few answers, forcing us to read between the lines. Many men operate this way, elusive, mute, masked. But Shields wants to be unmasked, to be real even if that means appearing weak or ugly: “I dearly/desperately want a real marriage — whatever that means. I think it means two people standing before each other completely naked; does such a thing exist? I don’t know, [but] I still want it (the unmasking).” Here, on the last page, there’s no quotations to bump up against; Shields’s brave honesty stands alone.
Sibbie O’Sullivan writes frequently about culture and the arts. Her book of essays about John Lennon is forthcoming.
THE TROUBLE WITH MEN
Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power
By David Shields
Mad Creek. 139 pp. Paperback, $18.95