WHEN CALEB POWELL tells David Shields a ghost story about an abandoned mine they come across while hiking in the woods, the latter replies with a jokily dismissive response. “Oooh. Shiver me timbers.” The brief scene reflects the larger drama of Shields and Powell’s I Think You’re Totally Wrong, an alternately ultra-serious, tongue-in-cheek Socratic dialogue in which two writers fight over what kind of literature does and does not “need to be written anymore.” As his spirited recounting demonstrates, Powell is invested in such stories, and by extension, conventional narrative; Shields, as he makes clear here and elsewhere, is not.
For those unfamiliar with Shields’s work, here is a brief summary of his aesthetic: truth and reality are slippery concepts; the “I” is a dubious pronoun; the realist novel is unbearably artificial; the revelations of an intimate, essayistic solipsism produce an expansive, inclusive, and distinctly human reading experience; great works violate generic bounds; books should cut to the “essence,” be distilled into “exquisitely compressed riffs, shards”; appropriation and creation are impossible to disentangle.
After writing several conventional novels and other nonfiction works, Shields experienced a Damascene conversion. He turned away from narrative and toward an essayistic form of literary collage, seeking to turn “banality inside out, and thereby [make] nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claims of facts and truth.” The result was Reality Hunger, a collection of all the best that has been thought and said — the quotes were all unattributed except for an index that Random House’s lawyers forced him to include — interspersed with his emails to friends lauding their work and Barthesian reflections on literature: “The gaps between paragraphs = the gaps between people (content tests form).”
In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields continued his battle against conventional narrative, be it a sprawling novel or a tightly plotted short story. Too often, fiction evaded the messiness and suffering of life. On Cheever: “You lying sack of shit. I’ve read the journals. I know what it’s like at ground level for you, Buster. Don’t give me these happy coincidences.” Nestled in among fragmented autobiographical tales were some sharp observations and earnest avowals of an erotic, deeply personal connection to language. There were also passages that were either bombastic — “Acutely aware of our mortal condition, I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it)” — or sounded like excerpts from a TED talk:
The next Shakespeare will be a hacker possessing programming gifts and ADD-like velocity, which is more or less how the original emerged — using/stealing the technology of his time (folios, books, other plays, oral history) and filling the Globe with its input.
Near the end of How Literature Saved My Life, Shields provided a preview of I Think You’re Totally Wrong, describing how he and his former student, Powell, spent four days together in a mountain cabin taping their conversations about life and art:
In our self-consciousness, we couldn’t help but act naturally. Two egos tried to undermine each other. Our personalities overlapped and collapsed. There was no teacher, no student, no interviewer, no interviewee, only a chasm of uncertainty.
I Think You’re Totally Wrong is the edited record of this daring descent into the “chasm of uncertainty.” It is composed of a series of brief exchanges, the best of which read like a reasonably engaging Paris Review interview, and the worst of which can be affected, flat, or cheekily humdrum.
Shields has written that “the whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against myself,” but as he admits to Powell, he could benefit from an outside perspective and some fresh material to fuel his introspective writing: “Basically, I have seventy-six stories and I’ve told them all twenty-two times.” The argumentative Powell is tasked with undermining Shields so that he can “restart [his] engines.” The men are to engage in a spirited debate about art, life, politics, and culture. Or as Shields puts it in an aside: “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.”
Powell is a “funny intersection of hippie and military” — generally leftist but with some libertarian leanings and hawkish foreign policy stances — a stay-at-home dad and freelance journalist/critic who published one novel nearly twenty years ago. Shields has a tenured position at the University of Washington and has published a series of genre-bending, polemical book-length essays. (Five more are due to come out in the next 18 months.) Powell, who taught English in Asia after graduating college, then worked construction, has never made over $22,000 a year, while Shields earns a base salary of $125,000 and makes more from speaking appearances and book advances. (“Does that seem like a lot?” Shields asks in one of his more grating, naïf personas.)
Powell has a reservoir of stories about his travels and sexual adventures, likes to joke, and knows how to change a tire; Shields has already and repeatedly told most of his self-proclaimed tiny reservoir of stories in print, comes across as more “pretentious and detached,” and does not know how to change a tire. “Is that horrible?” he asks, a question that reveals the anxiety inherent in the form they’ve chosen. A dialogue is also a struggle, and these men are testing each other even as they are each baring their souls.
Both have married women “more rational and commonsensical” than themselves whose attitude toward their husband’s work verges on indifference, a topic that Powell and Shields candidly discuss with a mixture of detachment and suppressed hurt. Crucially, Powell is still invested in fiction and conventional narrative; Shields is only interested in stories that “rotate outward toward a metaphor”: “[The story] has to flip over into something, into ‘X.’ I need an X factor. Without that, it’s just life.” The X factor for I Think You’re Totally Wrong is not to be found in their quarrel, or in any aesthetic or psychological revelation. Rather, it involves the broader question of whether Shields can humanize a literary form — this time an ancient one even older than autobiography — by confronting its banality head-on. Can the dialogue, once its generic conventions have been invoked and discarded, reveal, and translate to us, something that his “endlessly self-reflexive questioning of self” cannot?
The two men quickly settle into their assigned roles. Caleb is the more politically informed citizen who’s chosen life over art and wants narrative (fiction and nonfiction) to delve into the “painful pain” of a world filled with atrocities, psychopaths, refugees, and injustices. Shields is the cloistered egoist exploring humanity by rigorous self-examination, a believer in Yeats’s statement that “A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” Each is conscious of playing a role and that he is responsible for shaping the experiment into a work of art: “It’s staged, but it can’t be fake.” As the trip progresses, they consider how best to behave in order to produce the most interesting end product. Should they slightly recalibrate their views by the end? Should there be a homosexual subtext? Should a passing hiker be included for drama? How should they “carve out [their] personalities?” Which conversations are vital, and which constitute the “boring stuff [they’ll] probably take out”?
Over the course of the experiment, they go for walks in Washington’s mountainous state parks, watch movies, workshop an old Powell story about an encounter with a transvestite, and drink beer. Powell throws back a few before lunch, which prompts a dramatic intervention from the soberer Shields: “… is [your drinking] a slight issue? A nonissue? Tell me your thoughts.” And after four days of discussing the mysteries of literature, sex, and family life, they finally arrive at the knottiest dilemma of them all, whether to turn the hot tub off upon their departure: “Waste energy or not? That’s the question.”
The decision to include the mundane details of their trip, including transcribing a play-by-play sportscaster, makes me question whether the weightier conversations are enough to structure the book around. It’s not that over the four days nothing happens four times, to echo a famous description of Waiting for Godot, but that nothing happens rather limply. For every provocative sally or gripping anecdote there are exchanges that ultimately sap the work of its vigor: discussions of art (“Visual art is completely visceral […]. You either get, I don’t know, Rauschenberg, or you don’t”), the Iraq War, or the state of the Seattle public school system that are meant to (but don’t quite) qualify as compelling rather than banal.
There are some surprises. For example, Shields is more strident about politics than expected, adamant that Bush is a sociopathic war criminal, and judgmental about Powell’s wife’s working for a company owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. On aesthetic matters, Powell aggressively argues his points, prompting Shields to reiterate his claims or accuse his former student of misreading his work. Regardless, their mutual respect deepens. Powell agrees with Shields that there isn’t a pretentious bone in his body. Shields thanks him — “That’s a nice thing to say” — then offers a compliment of his own: “I knew you were smart, but I had no idea you were this smart.”
Neither changes his position, but that was never going to happen. Deprived of the aesthetic conversion narrative they had flirted with, we are expected rather to revel in the metafictional mirth of two men making a purposely undramatic version of the films they’ve brought along to watch: My Dinner with André, The Trip, Sideways. Self-consciously banal utterances — “Wow, that’s quite a waterfall. It’s beautiful. Just beautiful” — are followed by self-consciously pompous ones.
David: […] If my work has value, which I have to believe it does, it’s in the realm of helping — or more like forcing — other human beings to confront their/our shared humanity/flawedness. If every single person in the world read my books — […] people would not, I swear to god, go around killing one another, because they’d stop thinking that evil is “out there.” That’s why it’s so important to me to empty out Franzen.
It doesn’t particularly matter much whether this preening is ironic or a sincere conviction presented by an ironic version of Shields. We still have to read it, and it is hard not to wince.
There are some entertaining bits and moments where the mismatched pair demonstrates the chemistry that has kept them in touch — and sparring — for over twenty years. Powell is an engaging, voluble hero, determined to redress the injustice done to his biblical namesake: “Moses sent twelve spies to Jerusalem and only Joshua and Caleb did God’s work. Joshua got an entire book. Caleb got a few lines.” Powell dominates the conversation and, to Shield’s stated frustration, frequently cuts off his interlocutor, who speaks more slowly and is sensitive to such interruption from his stuttering days. He is also not afraid to needle his more affected (and famous) co-star and occasionally comes out with amusing lines that belong in the theater of the absurd: “I was disappointed when you refused to offer wholehearted praise of my [as-yet-unpublished] rape novel.”
Shields, in turn, plays his mandarin role well. He responds with Olympian detachment to Powell’s descriptions of Cambodian atrocities and patronizingly dismisses The New Yorker critic James Wood, defender of the realist novel, as “one lost human, movingly so.” However, he really comes alive whenever Powell shares one of his autobiographical tales. One can see Shields perched, raptor-like, waiting to swoop down and seize on some insight that Powell is in the midst of unwittingly revealing. There’s also a nice scene when a frustrated Shields cuts his combative friend down to size:
David: […] You’ve done more things out in the world than I have, but I’ve figured out how to write about it in my own voice. I know how to place a jar in Tennessee. It’s all I know how to do, but that, to me, is everything. […]
Caleb: If that’s all you have, it’s nothing.
David: That’s because you don’t have it.
Caleb: That’s a pretty dickish thing to say, don’t you think?
The usually thick-thinned Powell seems genuinely hurt, a rare moment of unexpected drama in work that concludes with a thoroughly contrived one: Will Shields pop in to Powell’s house for five minutes to continue gathering material for the book, or will he head home to Skype with his daughter? “What’s it going to be? Life or art?” Powell asks in the book’s cliffhanger of an ending.
“It’s really turned out interesting, hasn’t it?” says Shields as the trip winds down. Or to put it another way, has it flipped into X? Did standing the dialogue form on its head communicate the erotic thrill Shields himself experiences in the presence of great, intensely intimate art? Not necessarily for me, but I could be totally wrong. I confess that Shields and Powell’s project stoked my hunger for a large, loose, baggy monster of a contemporary novel to read, preferably while soaking in a hot tub.