Dad and the distinguished thing

This book review appeared in the Irish Times.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, By David Shields, Penguin, 225pp. £8.99

IN 2010 THE essayist and (it seems) lapsed novelist David Shields published Reality Hunger : a manifesto of sorts for a newish type of non-fiction and a polemic against the consolations of the contemporary novel. Most recent fiction, Shields contends, is written at some debilitating remove from both Life and Art – novelists now typically work the middle (and middling) ground of realist takes on historically detached scenarios, with occasional sorties into weak “relevance”.

Popular culture, meanwhile, relishes “reality” but is just as allergic as the modern novel to complex artifices. What we need today, says Shields, is a literary form that can do justice to the vexing quiddities of the real and at the same time dazzle us verbally and formally.

Shields’s was a compelling broadside for those of us frequently bored by the way novelists have reverted to dull realism in the last few decades, who see more of a future in essayistic or hybrid forms that are, however, not easily corralled into the publishers’ rubric of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps Reality Hunger was more exciting for being, as might be obvious, so giddily overstated – but that’s one of the jobs of a manifesto. Its provocations apart, one of the things the book did well was to make a reader wonder just what, aside from the manifesto itself, Shields’s own version of this imagined literature might look like.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead was first published in the US in 2008, and has some tricks in common with the later book, not least a taste for disjointed fragments and hectic quotation. But it’s not exactly, in retrospect, the book conjured by Reality Hunger . In fact in some ways Shields has written a quite conventional memoir-with-digressions: a book about life and death that spirals round the figure of the author’s father: in his 10th decade at the time the book was written, and impressively unwilling to admit the race is almost run. (At 97 he complains, incredulous, about having to see so many doctors.) The Thing About Life is only partly Shields’s homage to this man, who has since passed away; it’s also a way of asserting some distance from his father’s do-not-go-gentle outlook, of trying to describe a more philosophical attitude, in his early 50s, to what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”.

In a sense, the book is about the anxiety of influence: both literary and genetic. Milton Shields (born Schildkraut; he changed his name while serving in the US Army during the second World War) was still in his 90s a working sports reporter, a wisecracking hack and writer of confessional but somewhat self-aggrandising letters to his son. He was also a lifelong manic-depressive, a rail-thin swimmer and runner only lately slowed by arthritis – his son, meanwhile, is a martyr to his bad back – and a sexual athlete of (presumably, for Shields) shaming geriatric energy. He is, in short, a hard act to follow. Much of the book is composed of delicate and exasperated accounts of Shields senior’s stubborn, charming and sometimes mendacious character.

A comical example of the latter runs through the book: Milt’s confecting, many decades earlier, the story that the family was related to Joseph Schildkraut, Austrian star of several swashbuckling Hollywood movies. (He does a hammy turn too as Otto Frank in the 1959 Diary of Anne Frank .) Shields’s father seems to have gone in a lot for this sort of self-mythologising, and one has the sense that he wants to hang on to his ability to weave stories as much as to physical life itself. The wisecracks never cease: “There’s one comforting thing about the ageing process: I’ll never have to do it again”.

Around this core Shields fashions an essay on mortality that is half ruefully reflective and half blankly statistical, pitched somewhere between the nihilist aphorisms of EM Cioran and the driest medical text. Often, it’s the second tendency that is most revealing and moving. The book is filled with rather dismal factoids about decrepitude – about the rates at which everything slackens and slides, desiccates and even drops off – that can suddenly swerve into strangeness, as when Shields considers enthusiasts of the longevity movement, convinced they can save off these processes by eating next to nothing, thus turning themselves into corpses in-the-making.

Among the serious lessons Shields learns along the way is one that he derives from a venerable philosophical and literary tradition: that in the midst of quivering life we’re merely rehearsing our own ends. He finds it in the sermons of John Donne, who wrote, just days from his own demise: “We are all conceived in close prison, and then all our life is but a going out to the place of execution.” And in the regretful John Ruskin, who having spent his youth reading found himself in middle age longing to run, sing and flirt: “Wrong at both ends of life . . .”

The Thing About Life . . . is not all tender comedy and erudite sangfroid in the face of death. Like too many a male American memoirist, Shields works the sport-as-life metaphor a little too frequently – his cherished moments are on the basketball court – and he lacks, say, the truly obsessive shuttling between technical detail and metaphysical lesson that David Foster Wallace managed in his tennis writings. But for the most part this is a funny, smart, instructive and affecting experiment in memoir-writing with philosophical extras: if it’s not the brave new genre Shields went on to sketch in Reality Hunger , it is still a work of some considerable depth and style.

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One response to “Dad and the distinguished thing

  1. I think “failed” more appropriate than “lapsed”. As usual, Mr Dillon, an excellent, thoughtful and generous (to both reader and read) review. Shields couldn’t write novels (I’m guessing here) because he has no idea of literary voice, whether that be the essayist’s, or the novelist’s, and no talent for form. Compare Reality Hunger to David Markson’s The Last Novel and you’ll be in no doubt as to who the writer is. Shields’ impatience with the conventions of a certain type of novel I do share, although that impatience is much better expressed in Coetzee’s recent novels than in Shields’s book.

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