Majoring in Discomfort: John Domini Interviews David Shields

March 29, 2017   •   By John Domini

FOR AN INTRODUCTION to David Shields, I might just hand you Other People: Takes & Mistakes. His 20th title (a few share authorship) amounts to one long self-revelation. Each of its 70 or so items stands self-contained, whether essay or collage, and most saw print before. Revised and arranged, however, they read like a memoir.

For example: One early entry offers “Advice From My Dad,” and another looks at “Motherhood.” While neither parent was the destructive sort encountered in ordinary memoirs, Shields’s reminiscences draw out unsettling aspects. So too, another title crows “Heaven is a Playground,” and the next admits “Life is Not a Playground.” The bittersweet taste lingers as the subject turns to the larger culture. A brief reflection on Seattle, where Shields has lived for decades, claims the city’s “ruling ethos is […] forlorn apology.” A lengthy meditation on Bill Murray argues that the actor relies above all on “ironic distance.”

The same distance has always defined Shields’s vision. In college days, according to Other People, his father objected: “Why not just something simple?” Dad, dream on. Only Shields’s 1984 debut, the novel Heroes, might be termed simple. Thereafter, he has turned to more intimate and discomfiting material, in particular the stutter he struggled with as a child. In 1996 came Remote, his first full-length work of nonfiction. He’s never since returned to fiction, while digging ever deeper into the floundering distractedness of most discourse. Recent books demonstrate, often with impish delight, how humanity dwells in misunderstanding. His international sensation Reality Hunger (2010) was largely culled from the work of other authors, and championed how “language is most efficiently used where it is […] most efficiently misused.”

Shields prefers interviews face to face (he helps with edits thereafter), so before we got together I sent along a few discussion prompts. My model was the text he co-wrote with his former student Caleb Powell, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel (2015), in which the younger man always plays Devil’s advocate. Then as Shields and I sat down, he told me he intended to “push back.” I must say, I’m glad he did.


JOHN DOMINI: Let’s start with one of the stranger pieces in Other People, that string of sports clichés.

DAVID SHIELDS: Yeah … The ending has a kind of momentum.

[Reads a page of “Words Can’t Begin to Describe What I’m Feeling,” composed entirely in the dead language of sports. Shields begins, “We just need to go out there and take care of business.” He concludes:]

“You’ve got to love these fans. You’ve got to love this game.”


Those are fun, aren’t they?

That one and “Life Story,” all bumper stickers …

Exactly. Those two bounce off each other, and reading one now, it makes me think of a recent piece in Bookforum. There was a wonderful line — the writer Fiona Maazel was teaching dialogue. She told the students, “Some conversation is so banal, it never deserves to be dialogue.” And this one kid pushed back so beautifully. He said, “You’ve got to be kidding. ‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.”

[Domini laughs.]

Like, that’s my whole work! “‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.” It’s so moving to me, the fact that human beings, these talking apes, we actually say “hello.”

And here’s this professor, giving the standard advice, dialogue blah blah blah … and it was the student who stopped her, with great eloquence.

Well, Maazel set it up. She’s the straw man.

I get that, yes, but if we’re talking about the “Bumper Stickers” piece? Or the sports clichés? They’re both like “‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.” That’s … it’s a great title, even.

To put it another way, part of my work is this old-fashioned ode to the miracle of language. Like think how much of it worries whether human beings can communicate at all. You know that as a kid I had a bad stutter, and I’ve written about it at length … and in this book, the problem’s even in the title. You yourself pointed out, in one of your questions, how Other People: Takes & Mistakes has a more of a valedictory sound than Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Yes, but in both, underlying it all is the way people always get each other wrong, as per my epigraph.

Uh-huh. Philip Roth, American Pastoral.

Wonderful stuff, “this terribly significant business of other people,” which Roth then goes on to call “ludicrous.” I mean, think of how you and I got the day of our interview wrong!

[Laughs; either Shields misread my email, or I his.]

People are always ships passing in the night. But, and this is what I love, even so we communicate. I just love that. I hear it in everything we say, or try to say, amid the utter strangeness of other people.

That’s maybe a little sentimental. Still I do think there’s a contemporary relevance.

A relevance to the recent election?

I do think of Trump, and how little he thinks of everyone who’s not him. I’m not saying this just because we have to now. Every artist now has to say how our work’s relevant to the overwhelming political discourse. And this book of mine … I’d be hard-pressed to find lots of political implications. It’s not about geopolitics.

But it is about finding other people baffling, and what you do with that. You can either take that bafflement and detest people for it, which means be Trumpian, finding other people hellish because they’re not you, or you can get eroticized and galvanized by the staggering difference of the eight billion people on the planet. Hence my book, trying to express and explore how we live through other people and vice versa. How there’s always a space between us, and how that space is essentially erotic.

Well, it’s certainly a busy space. It makes me think of the author who most came to mind as I was reading, namely, Milan Kundera. In him too, misunderstanding is always eroticized, though more overtly. In Kundera, they’re always not getting each other and yet falling into bed. That’s especially true in Unbearable Lightness and Laughter and Forgetting. 

Those two books are crucial to me. You know I read Kundera when I was in Iowa, starting in the late ’70s. God, Unbearable Lightness and Laughter and Forgetting, I reread and reread. I loved them so much, I think it’s instructive what’s happened to his work afterward — I think what Kundera lost, it’s relevant to our conversation. He also fascinates me as a career, because he once had something to write about, something with which all his work attempted to engage, but then he dropped it to become this professional Parisian quasi-intellectual. He lost touch with his originating material, back in Prague. Instead, the work became … and you know I never tire of Kundera but, my God, books like Slowness. They’re immersed in his ego and never in conversation with anything else. Whereas I feel his earlier books are about, you know, Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Kundera’s first books, my title could almost be his subtitle.

Yes, and among those people are the dead and tortured of Prague, over a tortured 20th century.

Exactly. For a while he found the world of interest, and then he kind of pretended to graduate beyond it. He entered the purely philosophical realm, and I think it’s instructive. A cautionary tale.

The work dries up and floats away.

A shame, you know, because more than anyone, Kundera taught me how to stand out as a writer. You know I started with relatively traditional material. Then basically I realized I could move away from fiction and over to essay, reflection, collage, call it what you will, after I learned from Kundera how the parts that seemed most alive were the most meditative. Like that riff on kitsch in Unbearable Lightness, basically I learned to direct my own narrative vectors that same way. Except in my way.

And my way, I’d say it was mostly through research. I mean I go to lots of basketball games in Black Planet, I go to all kinds of pop culture in Remote, I read a million books in Reality Hunger. All of which is a different solution from Kundera’s, because he still retains a vestigial limb of fiction, even if he no longer believes in it. Basically, I use a different vestigial limb. If that makes sense?

Sure. One thinks of the classic definition for storytelling, that it’s a meaning-seeking activity.

Yes, meaning-seeking! Exactly. Like for Kundera to make sense of the world, he needs a story. Whereas what I’ve done, leaving story behind, is foreground the meaning-seeking. That’s at least half the reason that fiction lost its hold on my imagination.

And I had a question about your fiction, about the way this book references the early fiction.

I use one case in particular …

In particular, the essay that cites the real-life source for something in Handbook for Drowning. A youthful visit to a massage parlor. In the fiction, the incident contributes to the coming of age, but in Other People it’s presented in full embarrassing reality.

I have to ask — why do that?

But why not? That’s one answer anyway, and also I think about this time I gave a reading and Charles Johnson was there. You know Johnson, his novel Middle Passage? 

Yes, and you and Johnson — two very different sensibilities.

To say the least! I mean, I respect him, but with his devotion to the traditional novel, we couldn’t be more different. So I was giving a reading from The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead, and Charles was in the audience. Now, the book is full of stuff about mortality and my own body, and at one point — you know, because it tends to get a laugh and it’s interesting — at one point I reveal the length of my erect penis. The book is full of data like that, and I’m just average, very average. But afterward, Charles just exploded: “Why would you say that?”

I mean, it made him so uncomfortable —

Almost asking you to repeat it!

Exactly. So I made a joke, you know, “Charles, if I revealed the actual size of my penis, I’d have way too many groupies!” And people laughed, and Charles made a joke … but the point remains, he was uncomfortable, and that’s where my interest lies.

For me, the essay tradition — which goes back to Augustine — majors in discomfort. It’s about the demolition of the self. Think of Montaigne, who in the 16th century wrote quite directly about his own anatomy, including his own vexed relationship to his penis. It’s Montaigne who said, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”

So that’s the project? Exploring our discomfort?

We’re all Bozos on this bus, you know? Like I’m also influenced by stand-up comedy, from the Book of Job right up to Amy Schumer. I’m fascinated by how a comedian sets the room tilting, all through painful confession. All they’re saying is, “I’m terrible,” and it creates disequilibrium. Like, what’s that John Barth says about plot? That famous definition?

The “incremental perturbation”?

Yes, and it ends up at “complexified equilibrium.” That’s such a beautiful thing. But I’ve had to realize, that’s not where I go for my equilibrium and disequilibrium. To exercise my imagination, I go to the essay, which replaces the plot of two characters beating on each other with a single person beating on himself. It’s the drama of the living self.

Also I think of Rousseau, his wonderful opening … Have you read the Confessions?

Maybe three pages, in an anthology.

But that’s a key book for me. Whereas your questions mentioned Epic of Gilgamesh, and I don’t think I’ve read Gilgamesh.

Oh now, Gilgamesh. I can compare the translations.

See, again, radically different sensibilities.

For me, Rousseau’s Confessions, just the opening line: “I feel my own heart, and therefore I know other men…” He locates all knowing in self-knowing, which sounds straight out of Other People.

There’s also a contemporary echo. There’s Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, the great, bleak passage about self-understanding. Sebald points out that any life is a descent into darkness. For the individual and for the society, there’s never any dramatic arc, there’s only the fall.

John, yes — incredible book! Everywhere Sebald goes, he’s walking across both some graveyard of Europe and also his own graveyard, always closer to death. That’s what makes The Rings of Saturn so exciting. It looks to the uninitiated reader like a, I don’t know — a digression without an exit strategy. But it holds together as this very serious journey, both a European death march and the author’s approach to his own mortality. It bumps along a corridor full of caskets. And once that you get that, the book just explodes.

Okay, now I’ve got to turn that around —


I’ve got to point out a crucial distinction. You’re saying Sebald is walking over the bones of the slaughtered — but where’s the slaughter here? [Waves Other People.] I could make the same argument using Kundera. You yourself claimed his best work wrestles with the tormented history of Prague …

I see.

Let’s say for argument’s sake that what you’ve got is as brainy as Sebald or Kundera. Let’s grant that. But if so, yours is in a far lighter vein. It’s all play.

That’s … Okay, obviously, my first response would have to be that Other People doesn’t pretend to speak for an historical cataclysm, like The Rings of Saturn. That book is out of a whole different culture, and I mean, compared to Sebald, anyone’s going to look lighter or more playful or whatever.

Okay, but how’s your book actually about something serious?

Well, let me start with the meditation on Bill Murray. To me that essay’s one of the lynchpins, and then there’s the Howard Cosell essay, and the David Milch … Let me start with that, the way each of the five sections has a kind of anchoring essay.

The one on your mother, early on.

Yeah, though in that section for me the anchoring essay is “Delilah.” The radio personality, you remember — an amazing woman. Anyway I think that in those longer, anchoring essays, the book worries about a really serious concern. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s alive, but I know it’s dead serious about this baffling question of other people.

John, for me all your questions — and this is actually sort of fascinating — all your questions refuse to engage with the book as it is.

I keep asking, “Why isn’t it another book?”

Exactly. Why isn’t this Dead Languages? Why isn’t it That Thing You Do With Your Mouth? Or Reality Hunger or Roger Angell or Gilgamesh? I mean, what the fuck? And I don’t say this in a critical way. It’s sort of fascinating how we’re so different.

And I’m playing up the difference. Devil’s advocate.

And that’s basically what the book is about! The tragicomedy of the human misunderstanding, in which you being John Domini, you want to go to epic heroes and like that. I mean one of your questions [concerning Shields’s identifying with various sports figures and celebrities] talks about a hall of mirrors — but you being John Domini, you’re lost in your own hall of mirrors; one with a trampoline floor.

Like the thing for children, the Bounce Castle —

Yes. Reading this book, you’re bouncing along a hall of mirrors on your own aesthetic trampoline. And it’s a metaphor of human relations!

I mean, while Other People is not overtly about, say, the Holocaust, it’s serious in that communication is a both a comedy and a tragedy, and bottomless either way. We always get each other wrong, and what do we do with that? The question could hardly be more profound, especially now. Like think of the essay about what researchers call lateral head flexion. About the way a person expresses sympathy with just a tilt of the head. It’s not genocide, no, but it’s totally relevant to Trump. Look how he holds himself! Il Duce! In the essay, I discover what this signifies, how the man’s incapable of seeing anyone else’s perspective.

And that’s my defense, ultimately.

A good defense, David, and I think I’ve got another.

Oh! Was I wrong again?

[Laughs.] Hardly. But I’d go back to where we started, to sports and its clichés. I’d suggest that this is a serious book on manhood in contemporary America. I’d suggest that examining a man like Bill Murray, or Howard Cosell for God’s sake —

How interesting.

See, these are nebbishes, kind of weaselly, though Bill Murray cashes in on that — but nobody’s Gary Cooper. Nobody’s Gilgamesh, no way.

I believe that’s one of your defenses. The book examines of the quandary of American manhood, at this laughably comfortable hour of our existence.

Interesting, I mean really. I can’t help but think of a certain Woody Allen line —

It’s not far from Woody Allen to Bill Murray.

Not at all, no. But Woody Allen has a wonderful quip, something like, “We’re all losers, by the fact that we’re born and we die and we’re human and we’re lost. But only now are we admitting that we are all losers.”


It’s probably funnier the way he said it.

[Laughs.] But it’s not that funny! It’s basically serious, just like my book.

I think when you mention nebbishes, when we speak of schlemiels and schnooks, I mean, just look at my subtitle, Takes & Mistakes. It’s about losers, and I double down on their losing. Like, in Other People, the last incident shows me digging up all the bad reviews I’ve ever gotten …

They practically have the final word.

Yes, because we’re all Bozos on this bus. Because I hate critics who use writers as a platform on which they strike a pose, morally superior. The lofty critic. To them I say, “I know you, Dear Reader. You share my quandaries, and how dare you pretend otherwise? How dare you pretend that your penis is less boring than mine?”

I think I’m working for a more honest reader, and I hope I’m making them feel less freakish. The point is, I’m hugely interested in loserdom as philosophical winnerdom.

That’s basically the strategy of the book, to lean hard into our loserdom, since that’s what’s most human about us. And I guess when it comes to men, the American masculine, I find still more losers and lean even harder.

Which is important work, at a moment when many of the classic signifiers of manhood don’t apply.

Really? How so?

Well, we’re the same generation —

Are we? You’ve got more hair.

[Laughs.] Look, for almost all the generations of men before ours, it was essential, for instance, to know how to kill an animal. To make the weapon, keep it handy, use it skillfully. But you and I, we wouldn’t have a clue.

Now, Gary Cooper, he’s Hollywood. He’s a sham. But my own father, over in southern Italy, what he did to survive as a guerilla … I wouldn’t have had a clue.

 Your father was a guerilla fighter?

Yes, and you, it’s right here in Other People, you had ancestors who suffered pogroms. Now what is our comfy American manhood compared to that? It’s hardly manhood at all, if you ask old Hemingway. Then there’s the women’s movement, which turns up in the book. Your mom, she almost embodies the movement, and you understand it’s just. It’s righteous — but meantime, what about the American man?

John, yes, but I want to say that my mom’s not the only woman in the book. There’s Delilah, and girlfriends, and the Christian basketball stars …

Absolutely. But if a pretty Bible-thumping girl is a killer on the court, where’s that leave the men?

David, the project may’ve been inchoate, as you pulled the book together. Still, it wound up a portrait of the American man who realizes he’s lucky, very lucky, and yet he isn’t Trump. He’s open to … to other people.

You make me think of the contradictions in American culture. Some critics have said that’s my primary subject or whatever, and I hope such contradictions get explored in Other People. I hope I get at the paradox in a figure like Charles Barkley, who to me is an interesting loser. Barkley never quite grabbed the brass ring, he’s not Michael Jordan, and to me Jordan isn’t interesting.

Then there’s Cosell, who had his moment but who was largely vilified. Adam Sandler, a new kind of self-loathing Jew. Bob Balaban …

How many movies catch Balaban with his pants down?

And to me he’s fascinating. He’s a highly successful actor, but because of the way his face comes together or something, he’s the very embodiment of everything America hates. He’s that sniveling insider.

The antithesis of Gary Cooper.

And the really interesting question is, what would that do to his soul? To embody a hateful masculinity?

And I think of … You know there’s an anecdote about Cooper in one of my favorite books ever, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. Do you know it?

The playwright, I know. Butley, for one.

That’s him, Simon Gray, and his diaries are brilliant. They’re a tremendous influence on the way I think about writing. Maybe I’ll make it my mission to get them reissued. Maybe I’ll plug the idea right now.

 [Laughs.] I imagine he’s got some dirt on Cooper.

I know I’m going to ruin the anecdote. But wasn’t that Cooper in High Noon?

David, he won the Oscar.

Of course. So in the film, he has this odd walk, kind of a hitch in his walk, and they made it look heroic. But what Gray reveals is, the real problem was that Cooper had the piles!

He was trying to keep from, from shitting his pants?

The Smoking Diaries tells the story beautifully.

Wow, it’s weird you bring that up. It’s truly weird, because I just reviewed a new book on that movie. [Glenn Frankel’s High Noon.]

That’s so interesting!

This book, it’s chock-full of research. The notes go on and on. And it says Cooper had a bad back.

Wow. Fascinating.

He had to lie down between takes. 

A different version — I mean, this could be straight out of Other People.

Yes, and either way, so much for the hero.

Exactly. Either way, whatever they did in the editing, making Cooper look heroic, in fact it was the product of his woundedness. It’s become this iconic American cowboy walk, when in fact it was just a guy trying to stumble through the day. It’s a parable.

You know, I think a crucial essay in Other People is the Cosell essay, “The Wound and The Bow.” The title’s from Edmund Wilson, of course, and I hope the piece is one of those that lifts the book to a larger purpose. I hope it speaks to the way we get stronger. And maybe it’s particularly American and masculine, but I think I’m saying that the only way to get stronger is to be ruthlessly honest about your own woundedness. The bow of art comes from the woundedness of humanity, and if the book has larger value, it’s that. Whether the subject is my own stuttering, whether it’s Adam Sandler’s self-loathing or Bill Murray’s crushing ennui … whatever, it’s always a wound, and that’s what makes people a fucking miracle. That’s what I find most moving. And what I hate most is when they pretend to be only strong and right — only Trump, you know?

Because what makes people redeemable is precisely the opposite, the way they’re always poking each other’s wounds, getting each other wrong, and still somehow they say hello.


John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, short stories. His criticism is collected in The Sea-God’s Herb.