Photos: Stills from the film trailer for I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by James Franco.
Our writing group meets once a month. We’re an agreeable lot, so when the need to procrastinate arises it’s easy to find other topics to discuss. New episodes of WTF, old New Zealand pop bands, what to make of Hawkwind. But all consensus and no conflict has its limitations. Enter the books of David Shields.
Opinions of Shields vary greatly. I’m the most vocal advocate in the ranks. I’ve been circulating his books since Black Planet and recently passed around one of his newer books, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, a collaboration with Caleb Powell.
The premise of I Think You’re Totally Wrong is that Shields and Powell, a former student, meet up for a weekend of discussion and debate. The central argument is this: is it better to pursue a domestic life or one of creativity? They each write and have families but balance them differently.
I Think You’re Totally Wrong is a compelling tug of war. I enjoyed feeling my allegiances shift back and forth between Shields and Powell. I did expect that there would be a range of reactions within the group. I did not expect that the book would be ripped upon its return, having been thrown across the room.
— Mike Faloon
* * *
On October 20, 2015 I sat down to write my portion of a collaborative review of I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell. According to Goodreads, I finished reading the book more than eight months ago. I remembered little of this “provocative” and “entertaining” “romp of a...book.”
In the name of relevancy, I thought I might instead review a newer Shields book, That Thing You Do With Your Mouth: The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews as Told to David Shields, but was too embarrassed to purchase a book with a title this explicit. The library, which I perceived to be less judgmental (PATRIOT Act notwithstanding), held only an e-book, for which I needed to download an app called Overdrive. I spent the next hour unsuccessfully attempting to download the e-book onto my phone and became increasingly agitated.
Brett: I attempted to check an e-book out with Overdrive. The process is a bit frustrating / not intuitive. I'd like to check the e-book back in but I do not see a way to do that.
Gail: Librarian 'Gail' has joined the session.
Gail: Hi Brett, did you download to a device or is it just checked out in Overdrive?
Brett: I downloaded the Overdrive app on my phone and selected NYPL -- I clicked bookshelf, signed into NYPL, and the book is there but I cannot get it into Overdrive.
Gail: you don't see a button to download?
Brett: No, unfortunately not.
Brett: the buttons are "Disable eNYPL PDF" and "Read (in your browser")"
Gail: oh, it may be because it is PDF it is not compatible with the app
Gail: sorry about that
Gail: I can return for you if you are not interested, just need your card number
Brett: 14698015782832 -- thx
Gail: sorry, I am not able to return for some reason... it will disappear from your account after the borrow period on its own though
Brett: OK, as long as I will not be fined. I do appreciate you help.
Gail: no fines for digital materials. Have a great day, thanks for using Ask NYPL.
I turned to Life Is Short — Art Is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity, a collection of short essays and stories edited (with extensive commentary) by Shields and poet Elizabeth Cooperman. My initial instinct was to “review” this book in a Shieldsian manner — collage, appropriation, faux documents — until I realized that had been done already by an actual writer (“Life Is Short Reviews Itself,” by Dinty W. Moore in PANK Magazine). I was reminded that shorter ≠ easier or lazy or a middle finger to the reader. I was moved to tears by George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”:
I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
— Brett Essler
* * *
I threw I Think You’re Totally Wrong across the room, hitting a bookshelf. But it wasn’t a reaction to the book. I had been reading it on the couch while my two-year-old daughter was climbing all over it, and me, when she smacked her head into my chin. You know, where the teeth rattle and the pain traces your jaw.
Picking up the book, I saw the spine was damaged. About halfway through at this point, I pretty much skimmed the rest of it for book recommendations and other bits of interest. Whenever My Dinner With Andre or The Trip was mentioned, I would want to watch that instead.
I come away, as usual, with the impression that David Shields elevates his own change in taste / ideas about writing and reading to some sort of universal cultural standard everyone is supposed to ascend to. Also he seems to claim to be doing something new while simultaneously citing ancient, or French, precedent for all this new newness. (I think Caleb Powell brought this up on Bookworm.) I find myself thinking of recent (to me) great books if they had had some “reality” stapled onto them. Umbrella. Hawthorn & Child. Autobiography of Red. I suspect that the Reality Hunger thing is a dressed-up version of someone saying “I just don’t like all that made up stuff.”
Which is not much of a review of I Think You’re Totally Wrong, I know.
— Brendan Kiernan
(Note: It’s a complete coincidence that when I returned Brendan’s copy of The Saints’ Wild About You the booklet was rain-damaged and the CD case was shattered. — Mike)
* * *
Addendum to Review
Dancing with Myself
Author: Billy Idol (David Shields)
Simon and Schuster, $28.00 USA
Allegedly written by Brian Cogan
David Shields’ style of cultural appropriation reaches a new nadir in his new book, Dancing with Myself. (Typical of Shields’ questioning of the certainty of authorship, his name does not appear on the cover, or anywhere in the book.) Although Dancing is typically full of outside quotes (lots of history this time, it's almost as though at one point Shields was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash and went to rehab and had a lot of free time to read up on basic European history, albeit mixed in with self help quotes).
What's most, or actually not surprising, is how much Shields’ comments on the fluidity of identity in this work. The reader has to question: Was Shields really a part of the early English punk scene, rubbing shoulders with everyone from Sid Vicious to Gene October, or is he hinting that all punks create their own legend? Surely the fact that Shields adopts a pseudonym in this work, a "punk name" if you will, ties the reader closer to his overindulgences as gleefully admitted in this book. While I have seen Shields enjoy beer and wine before, I had no idea about the extent of his addictions to cocaine, heroin and various other drugs until this book.
It's in the latter half of this autobiographical new book, where Shields takes his critique of celebrity and identity to a new level. In his rock star persona, he travels the world, crops his hair, dies it bleach blonde (pre-baldness, or a wig perhaps?) and tours as a modern Idol, singing intentionally ridiculous songs about weddings and dancing. This is where the book finally brings his critique about literary deconstruction to its logical conclusion. We (the audience, also the idol) and Shields (as reader and idolized rock star) wade together through intentionally forced prose and digressions, forming a non-linear garden walk through a miasma of literary tropes about rock and roll excess. By the time "Billy," as Shields calls himself in the book, puts out a record called Cyber-punk (the name of late eighties/early nineties literary movement, as epitomized by William Gibson), it is also clear that Shields is now using cyberspace theory to prove that we are all avatars, all role playing and all with a cocaine habit and a penchant for Thai hookers.
The book ends not with redemption, a rehab is hinted at but never really discussed. We have gone through Shields’ veiled comparison of the author as rock star and the malleability of memory and reality in what seems like a pointless journey, but in reality is a masterpiece of modern literary deconstruction. And that Shields chose to write the book as though he was being pressured by an angry book publisher eager to recoup their advance adds to the urgency of the prose. Highly recommended.