There’s nothing new about the irresistibly riveting confluence of sex, politics, and a visually-based media news culture whose only focus is to sacrifice all characters to the altar of our collective short attention spans. In this capacity, it seems that sex exists to confound, compound, enhance, compliment, and confuse our lives. Sex is Identity, Politics is Power, and the gender through which both are expressed is relative and fluid.
Those of us who cared about such things back in the late ’90s during the Monica Lewinsky / Bill Clinton scandal might not have seen sex and power through such progressive, conditional lenses. Compare the overwhelming political and character failings of America’s current Commander in Chief and his minions with the allegedly immoral adulterous transgressions that led to the impeachment (but not the removal) of Clinton, and you’ll understand how such deeply entrenched institutionalized sexism and megalomania has been normalized into American culture.
David Shields‘s new collection of essays, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, is a blistering and brilliant quintet of reportage and observations from the forefront of the five parts of our lives suggested by its subtitle. It’s not explicitly political in the sense that any leaders are mentioned. We know the names of leaders who have fallen on the sharp swords of temptations offered by sexual and political indiscretions, and the seduction of power to abuse it to one’s own sexual gratification, and their narratives stay with us as we read these essays.
Shields knows that his readers aren’t looking for socio-political commentary so much as creative non-fiction essays that are distinctly in his voice. He’s a master deconstructionist, a visceral confessionalist who has risked so much in such books as Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010) and That Thing You Do With Your Mouth (McSweeney’s, 2015). Call them “anti-essays”. He curates quotes from others and weaves his own commentary through them. He stretches boundaries and de-constructs what we’ve known and generously allowed from leaders of this writing form. While many of his past titles (especially the masterful Enough About You: Notes Towards the New Autobiography, Soft Skull Press, 2009) have flirted with the five themes in The Trouble With Men, never has it seemed so intense and concentrated. The confessional explosions that play themselves out in this book are equal parts terrifying, edifying, and beautifully troubling.
Consider the title. We understand the implications of the five categories, and perhaps we even visualize them as perhaps a Venn diagram. They’re all inter-connected: sex, love, marriage, porn, power. The primary category that drives the typical reader is conditional and depends on many variables. They are concrete conditions that immediately become abstract as we personally experience them. It’s the first half of the title that proves more intriguing. Is The Trouble with Men a hectoring broadside from a self-hating male writer, or is it more complex? The focused reader should be able to quickly conclude that Shields is signaling that there are two issues to consider. First, there is the “trouble” (however that’s defined) inherent within and in opposition to men by their very nature. It’s a doomed trouble that cannot be avoided and starting with the presumption of trouble never builds to anything meaningful. The more likely conclusion is that Shields is examining how the typical nature of a man (his perspective) deals with (successfully or not) these five forces.
In “Let’s Say I’m Writing a Love Letter to You”, Shields submits a proposal for our consideration: “This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy.” This is important to consider here. He writes of this book’s purpose: “The only reason it’s being written… is to talk, finally, to you.” He suggests that this book is a wound and that he wants to separate what’s being written here from the “naïve victim narratives” that “invok[e] pain as a badge.” In other words, he’s not elevating suffering to a sacrificial art form. From the start we can see we’re in for a battle, and we settle in for some commentary about author Nicholson Baker‘s sex narratives: 1993’s Vox, 1995’s The Fermata, and 2011’s House of Holes.
“Only in America could a novelist who writes about sex as if it were a subset of the Shopping Channel be praised as the thinking person’s pornographer.”
James Jones, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer enter the picture. Of Roth, Shields writes: “He rarely examines what his characters want from sex.” This is a book about the sociological complications by and about male writers that are rarely honestly addressed. Shields seamlessly segues from brief commentary about their work to the very idea of writing about universal suffering (and the suggestion that those having sex in their stories experience equal amounts of suffering and joy is effectively made.)
The narratives of suffering are rampant, but for Shields the problem is that they’re being adjusted (and perhaps heightened) for the sake of marketability. Shields gets into the “obscene” with admirable clarity:
“What I like about porn is its descent into hell.”
“Everybody needs someone to beat up,” Shields writes. Shields is commenting problematic elements in his own writing and male writers in general. He reflects on his own writing approach, that he’s “…quoted and ‘misquoted’ hundreds of sentences, without ‘proper’ attribution… as a way to be ‘bad’ and get spanked…” Is he deliberately provoking hostility from other male writers? No. He’s starting a dialogue. The reader feels prepared after this first essay because Shields is brilliantly setting the table. His writing is a construct. His perceptions are sharply observed yet always with conditional adjectives.
By the end of this essay he wants to know how he ended up in this place and in this shape. He writes: “What wrong road took me here?” Where is Shields on this journey? Is the present gloomy and the future doomed? Can he get back to safety? The fact that he doesn’t put quotes around the adjective in this sentence profoundly speaks to where Shields will be taking us in this book. He might be on a wrong road, but ending up there might not be because he followed bad directions.
In “The Four People in Every Bedroom”, Shields considers the constraints of intimacy. He writes of his mother’s negative influence on his life and asks: “Do I ever want to excise that?” Beauty, especially in the form of a “pretty little girl”, is met with a typical response that “‘She’s gonna be a heartbreaker…” In effect, a woman’s beauty is nurtured and prepared to be weaponized when needed. Shields jumps to reflections about his sister, the TV show Get Smart, how he doesn’t like his ability to draw the deepest secrets from people. The title of this essay, from a notion proposed by Freud, compels Shields to ask:
“Who are they? [the four people] Where are they? Where are they hiding?”
In these essays, the “other” is internal and personality-based, but it’s also external. He lists female writers with whom he is obsessed and notes that the reason he reads them is that their “…words are etched in acid.” The short spurts of personal reflections Shield’s offers about his own writing might seem more like deflection to the reader unclear of Shields’ motivation. Where is he going with his thesis? Why are we reading these posts about particular body type preferences (and presences) and the peculiar ways some people walk? By the end, we are reminded (though it should have been clear all along) that he still has a particular reader in mind. Shields is hiding behind bushes and under rocks but he never leaves the narrative, especially with these final two lines:
“No one is ever cured of anything; that much seems obvious. Which brings me to you.”
Shields goes deeper with “This is the part where you’re supposed to say you love me.” He writes, parenthetically: “(You dare me to love you.)” Donald Trump enters (briefly) to brag that grown men weep when he walks into a room with his woman. Shields sees a woman and man walking down the street. She’s looking reverentially at the man and Shields wants to tell her: “…don’t oversell the devotion.'” This essay jabs at us, dances circle around us in the boxing ring, attacks us suddenly with short but potent punches to the gut. He’s daring us to dismiss the troublesome subject matter while in awe the these essay’s structures “You gotta stop cloaking your manipulation in the rhetoric of concern,” he writes. Later: “I’m confused by and addicted to your perpetual impulse to catastrophize, to disasterize.”
These are dangerous, hypnotic essays. Shields tells us in this one, later, that the only things that matter are “…who’s doing whom… who worships whom… who’s in control.” A line from an old Eurythmics song (“Here comes the rain”) comes to his mind (and ours now) as he both dismisses and elevates “I want to dive into your ocean.” A famed sportscaster (Marv Albert) falls to his knees in submission to a colleague, in worship of her human body, “… which… he’s spent his entire adult life ridiculing.” What is human nature? How do we disassemble and examine the transactions of love? For Shields, love is “… a spaniel that prefers punishment from one hand to caresses from another.” The reader familiar with Shields’s style and the overall approach to this form will be fascinated with and hooked by his mastery of it. Lines come in and out and he weaves them together to make a statement. Shields understands that the greatest power comes from knowing where to place the lines, and this one arrives near the end of this essay:
“The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned.”
In “Porn: An Interlude”, Shields continues the habit of weaving sometimes painfully stark confessional reflections with lines from Susie Bright, a self-described “sex positive feminist” (who appears throughout this collection), Martin Amis, John Updike, and others. Shields dissolves into the topic of this essay without losing objectivity. “Porn shows everything without comment,” he writes. The darkest, most extreme product from this entertainment genre fits well within the themes of this collection. Author Lisa Katzman reflects (as cited by Shields) that the “…drama of a woman’s pleasure is written not on her genitals but her face,” followed by Shields noting that for him sexiness is detachment. He expands the discussion into a question as to whether or not men will actually ever see women as real. In order for that to happen, men will have to acknowledge that “… their fantasy life is inevitably underwritten by howling weakness.”
Later, near the end of this essay (again demonstrating his mastery of placement), Shields reflects on the meaning of his name. “David” means “beloved” in Hebrew, and “Shield” is self-explanatory. He chooses to look at it optimistically, that he protects his loved ones. The subject of pornography is dark and perhaps almost completely content-based at its most graphic level, but for Shields (as it should be for any consumer of that material) it’s also personal. Everything in this book is personal. He writes:
“How did I come to stand so far outside of things? Was I exiled or did I exile myself?”
The final essay, “Life is tragic (everybody knows it)”, continues working in themes of submission and dominance. “I reach for you,” he writes. “You lean from me. It’s like falling.” Earlier, there’s another observation about the extent to which detachment has become a defense mechanism: “In order to find our bodies funny, we must first… see our bodies as machines… We’re puppets, occupying moving shapes as a way to symbolize our living questions.” The final line here, italicized in the text, beautifully sums up the grace to be seen in and through all this darkness:
“What you think of as your weakness I think of as your vulnerability-which I love.“
The Trouble with Men is a difficult book to embrace, a problematic book to pin down, but that’s the point. Shields might be a literary boxer, jabbing at us as we try to spar with him, a tender shot to the kidney or a harsh connection to the jaw, but at times he’s also a master patchwork quilt artist. The other citations included in these essays, from names as sublime as Philip Larkin and ridiculous as Donald Trump, are woven into, through, beneath, and around these pages for clear reasons. Shields knows that the color of their threads and the durability of the very fiber means these strands will never fall apart. Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power are the eternal quintet that has burdened and uplifted us, and in the masterful hands of David Shields they’re illuminated in a dangerous, brilliant, eternal light.