David Shields is an American author who has decided to collate many of the questions he’s been asked in interviews and reprint them – without any of his answers – under themes of Childhood, Art, Envy, Capitalism etc. The idea is that the questions put to him are just as revealing as his responses. This is a gimmick, but not merely that. To map how others interrogate us is an original idea.
It follows that the best way of testing whether this works for the length of a book, even one as short as this, would be for the book to be reviewed by someone who had no prior knowledge of Shields. In this, I’m your man. My ignorance of him was immaculate – and I’ve kept it that way, for the duration. The only check I did make was whether this book was in any way related to the ‘The Last Interview’ series published by Melville House, which has devoted volumes to Borges, Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie, García Márquez and others. It isn’t. So the first thing I learned about Shields is that he’s a bit of a rip-off artist, giving his book that title. The content confirms that ‘sampling’ is an abiding feature of his work.
What else has one discovered? That he loves epigraphs. The book is introduced by several, and each chapter by more. The first for the first chapter (on Process), is from Jonathan Goldstein: ‘Life is about failing. It is about letting the tape play.’ Utter drivel. But it tells us that Shields is a romantic. Further on, introducing the chapter on Brokenness, we are vouchsafed Tolstoy: ‘The only absolute knowledge attained by man is that life is meaningless.’ Tolstoy had a prophet complex and was one of the coldest men who ever lived. So be careful, David. Rampant narcissism is refrigeration. Tragedy doesn’t get its own chapter, perhaps because it’s dotted all over: Shields is fond of glib tragedy. But Comedy gets a chapter, introduced by Henri Bergson: ‘The essence of comedy is the mechanical encrusted upon the living.’ What one understands from all these epigraphs is that Shields is into celebrity downerism.
However, when one comes to the lists of questions themselves, one finds – with surprise and delight – a playful cabaret, quite at odds with these dark, pretentious quotations. One deduces a man who has a troubled, agile, self-mocking relationship to his life; a Californian intellectual who wasn’t loved in childhood, who teaches a lot, is mad about sport and has scab-picking as a hobby. Many questions do contain specific details of his life, some of them horrific: ‘Did Joan Baez really sing at your 16th birthday party?’ And Shields admits on the back cover that he has rejigged many, presumably to deliver facts among other things. ‘Now your father – he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, right?’ This is a statement with a question mark tagged on.
Some of the questions are hilarious. ‘Do you concur with Camus’s observation that the only serious question is whether to commit suicide?’ Or:
“Let’s get down to it then: how has the last century of modernism and postmodernism – subjectivity, relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the contested space of ‘nonfiction’ etc, etc – paved the way, in a sense, for Trump?
Broadly we can see that Shields has become less of a writer and more of a player of linguistic games. He is a devotee of those old mantras: the medium is the message, nothing is real/everything is real. He stammered as a boy, and his approach to authorship is still governed by ambiguity, deconstruction and obfuscation as routes to revelation: a classroom Castaneda who gives with one hand, takes away with the other.
This does of course float perilously close to Tolstoy’s meaninglessness, which is a form of smugness. It is not surprising that Shields emerges as an admirer of that elegant airhead John Ashbery, for whom poetry was phrase-making. Ashbery’s phrases are delicious (thanks to Deerfield and Harvard); but it’s Mallarmé without the mystery, and after a few poems, the effect is gormless. At regular intervals Shields draws his own blood – it saves him from Ashberyism.
The book’s chief failure (since its author adores failure) is that there is no chapter on Sex. It is a sexless work, and the Dancer of the Seven Veils funks it. But I loved its ebullient elitism, like sipping a glass of champagne at an intellectual Royal Ascot – and you can just hear the thunder of hooves in the background. Finally it should be read as a book. It wouldn’t work well on screen. Its contrapuntal dynamic would be lost.