In this fourth month of 2019 I am making good on two of my new year’s resolutions, one, to write more, and two, to read more. I begin this endeavor by writing a poem every day for a month, while simultaneously writing more about what I’m reading more. Let’s start with this. For me, there have become three kinds of reading:
- reading the stuff I’m teaching (over and over again, because I have never felt able to teach a book that I am not reading along with my students, no matter how well I know the work),
- reading for pleasure (a thing I’m rarely able to do because I’m spending so much time rereading in preparation for teaching, and, as good as I think I am at it, I am a slow reader), and
- fake reading (skimming articles on the web, posts on facebook, sneaky advertisements I happen to be interested in–all things that require little if any deep attention.
My new year’s resolution, more specifically, is to do more pleasure reading, less fake reading, but I’ll have to hold steady on the reading of literature I’m teaching, again, because I have to–not because anybody cares, but because I would not be able to teach it well otherwise. Maybe some people care about that, but no one’s checking in with me, if you know what I mean. It’s not likely that any kid or adult would EVER ask me, Mr. Jarmer, have you done the reading for today? No matter: I have done the reading.
It is my intention to start reviewing the books I read here (responding to, really: I don’t know anything about writing reviews). And I have landed on this title for a new series: “The Book I Read,” after the Talking Heads song. If you have never heard it, you’ve got homework before you read another word. ’77 was a good year.
At any rate, the first book I have read this year that I was not reading in preparation for teaching is The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power by David Shields.
I’ve read The Trouble with Men I think three times now. Like in his recent books, most notably Reality Hunger and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, David Shields has continued to carve out what seems to be a totally new genre of literary essay: the mosaic, the collage—a work that, while it features at its center the writer’s thesis and his anecdotes and evidences delivered in short micro-bursts of lively prose paragraphs, is surrounded by a swirl of other voices, quotes from the famous and un-famous, dead and alive alike, shedding light and perspective and support for and arguments against everything that the author says. It’s exhilarating. It’s like being at the best party ever, where the conversation is consistently scintillating, and no one is too drunk to drive. While Reality Hunger challenged the primacy of fiction as a literary form, and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump theorized about our president’s self-loathing, this book here is about sex. Well, it’s about much more than sex—as the subtitle suggests–it’s also about, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, all words, though, still, considerably bound up with sex.
Framed as a weird kind of love letter to his wife, Shields explores all of these subtopics through the lens of his marriage and his sexual history and his sadomasochistic leanings. There’s danger here—which provides the dramatic tension—on a couple fronts. First, Shields indicates that his partner was less than enthusiastic about the book. “It’s so perfect that you don’t want me to write this book (because you don’t want to read it); therefore, I have to write it. So, too, if you were fine with me writing it, I’d have no desire to write it.” And two, it strikes me as dangerous because this is the stuff that everyone lives through, thinks about, and deals with, but that no one ever or rarely ever talks about. The book is an embodiment against the taboo of sexual discourse, and I find it challenging, brilliant, sometimes offensive, puzzling, brave, inspiring, and, obviously, worthy of rereading.
It is a book that defies summary, in part, because of its discursiveness. While each part of the book has its own title and seems to be organized around a theme, each paragraph will sometimes move in surprising directions, from, say, a childhood memory of his sister or his parents, to a quote from Susie Bright about pornography, to some commentary about a famous sportscaster, actor, athlete, to a direct address back to the “audience” of the work, his wife. In this way, the pieces of the mosaic are speaking to each other and even though to me sometimes the connections seem oblique, I am along for the ride the entire time. Reading Shields’ work is sometimes like channel surfing or having a dozen tabs open at once, and yet there’s method in’t. It just requires some attention–which is strange and paradoxical: we’re forced to move quickly from idea to idea, as many as eight to ten times on a single page, while simultaneously being asked to pay close attention.
I’m trying now, in conclusion, to say something sum-upish. How about a question or two or several that might approach the center of what I think this work is about: How well do our spouses or our romantic partners know us? How well do we know them? What secrets are we keeping? How vulnerable can we allow ourselves to be? What are the risks? While we long for intimacy, why do we have such difficulty achieving it? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in this culture? What’s up with the uniquely American struggle between purity and perversity? Why so much shame and guilt? And perhaps, finally, what are the inter-relationships between sex, love, marriage, porn, and power? Can you have any of these without the others? What happens when sex is loveless, or when love is sexless, or when the question of power is absent from porn, or when porn is absent from love, marriage, sex? It’s becoming nonsensical. I guess the point is that none of these questions have easy answers, so perhaps the form Shields has chosen, the collage, the mosaic, is necessary, a multitude of voices between the same covers, in order to even begin to unlock these mysteries. Shields knows the topic is too grand to cover all by himself, so he invited a bunch of friends to help him out. I happen to be one of them, for which I am both grateful and mortified.