A Sexual Soul Laid Bare

A review of David Shield's book on the fragile and ferocious trouble with lust and love

David Shields once suggested I read Gilbert Sorretino’s “The Moon In Its Flight,” a lusty tale about the consequences of trying to redeem experience through art cast as a teenage summer romance. After some meta-fictional slights of hand, the narrator concludes, “Art cannot rescue any of us from anything” –a stark claim that underlies Shields’ own The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, And Power. In the opening pages we are told that what follows is addressed to his wife as a “love letter.” Shields tells us the book is an attempt to break an impasse in his relationship with his wife but also admits that doing so in such a public act could simply destroy the marriage—a risk he is obviously willing to take: “I’m aware of trying to create an intimate connection between you and me, but in a way it’s the last thing on my mind.”

It’s not difficult to view The Trouble With Men as bound performance art. It is a highly orchestrated exploration, inquisition, survey, analysis and confession. Shields explains that the book “aims to be a short, intensive, immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy.” He then follows with a page-long litany of alternate subjects, ending with “Or: On Being One’s own Bitch.” The book’s five loosely thematic, collaged sections (including “Porn: An Interlude”) consist of correspondence, quotes, and paraphrases from sources as varied as Susie Bright and Pliny the Elder, Jacques Lacan and Sarah Silverman woven into Shield’s own musings and confessions. And while the fractured sections are remarkably coherent and propulsive, the book ends at 138 pages offering no conclusions: “I thought it might be more useful,” Shield’s tells us, “to write a book that tries to ask interesting questions about pain rather than simply invoking it as a badge.” The Trouble With Men is a still shot of a tragicomic Oedipus probing his extracted eyes for an explanation.

The “reflections on sex, love, marriage, porn, and power” mentioned in the subtitle have as much to do with mirrors as contemplation, and what they reveal is funny and provocative: “It’s so perfect that you don’t want me to write this book…; therefore, I have to write it. So, too, if you were fine with me writing it, I’d have no desire to write it …[I]t’s your unwillingness to sanction it that makes it necessary.” Over the years, Shields has transgressed narrative conventions, muddied veracity, appropriated and undermined authority, and way over-shared; The Trouble with Men ups the ante, providing readers with a visceral sense of watching an artist committing all the chips and tossing the dice.

While the sequencing of the passages suggests movement toward reconciliation or some sort of resolution, the content of each makes clear that no level of human intercourse is simple, unencumbered, what we hope for or intend. If there’s a thread that binds this unruly inquisition, it’s Shields’ exploration of his lifelong masochistic impulses from his emotionally unavailable, domineering mother to what he portrays as his aloof, indifferent wife, making this book an unsettlingly frank personal confession, marital disclosure and seemingly a bet he can’t lose: Should his willingness to shine a light on some of the more sordid recesses of compulsion, obsession and preoccupation prove therapeutic and a sufficient testimony to his interest in salvaging his marriage, he wins (to the degree that satisfies him). Should his analysis of his behavior and perceptions of his spouse prove a bridge too far, he’ll suffer (and win again): “Did I instinctively know you would turn out to be my unraveling, and protest though I might, do I not crave this disintegration?” Such revelations are likely to provoke nods of empathy in readers; others that Shields shares will as likely make us recoil—not from disgust but recognition.

Despite the timing of its publication (Shields claims to have completed the book well before #MeToo), The Trouble With Men has been largely, critically well-received; there are, of course, the familiar charges of it being self-indulgent and exhibitionistic. That Shields seems to be his own favorite subject is old news (see Enough About You). He understands that humans are deeply deceptive creatures, particularly when we’re talking to ourselves. To better confront and apprehend experience, we must cut through deflective chatter and posturing; we have to be willing to get naked and accept that humility and shame will be our stinging reward. That Shields seems to relish this aspect of his work more than other authors is part of this book’s giddy appeal. (A sex worker asks, “Is that all you got?” Shields responds, “I’m a grow-er, not a show-er.”)

Another criticism of The Trouble With Men is that is it isn’t philosophically rigorous enough and the title a bait and switch. Shields raises questions, muses, juxtaposes, contradicts; and while there are insights of every shade, none bring the frenzy of human psycho-sexual collision to a head—so to speak: “To me all this sex talk is just a metaphor for the larger human hunger for ‘meaning,’ fulfillment, peace, which ain’t gonna arrive, not in our lifetimes.” Shields is rejecting the possibility of satiating the longing for intimacy, of locating meaning in the sexual mosh pit. Still, we persist. As this book catalogues, we commit all manner of curious acts to and with one another, elaborately camouflaged in rationalizations, fantasies and other fabrications–because that’s what people do when, in one way or another, they fuck each other. “Do I love you despite or because of your nastiness towards me? (Not even a question.)” There is a distinct suggestion in these pages that among humanity’s more misguided impulses is a perverse insistence on making meaning.

The Trouble With Men is not an attempt to analyze, evaluate, and offer conclusions about the varieties of human intimacy, manipulation and misunderstanding. It is Shields’ attempt to confront his own experience to better understand the currents that are moving him downriver (“In other words—How did I wash up on this shore? What wrong road took me here?”). As Shields writes in How Literature Saved My Life, “I…have trouble living anywhere other than in language. If I’m not writing it down, experience doesn’t really register.” He has no choice: to live is to turn experience into words. The need to express overrides any concern for the sound it makes. (“I’m aware of trying to create an intimate connection between you and me, but in a way it’s the last thing on my mind”).

Shields is getting on with the business of being his own bitch, peeling off the layers, nakedly probing, ostensibly to meet his own needs but not without a wink to those of us on the dark side of the glass. It’s a risky performance. The value comes not from the conclusions he arrives at, but from watching him in the act. Voyeurs that we are, we keep turning the pages, following the scuttle of the dice.

Sorrentino may be right, art may not rescue us, but it keeps our heads above water as we call out to one another in the wreckage and the waves. The Trouble With Men suggests what we all come to understand at some point –that language is no more effective at easing our isolation from one another than our offerings of flesh and fluids. At best it is gesture of communion, but ultimately not up to the task of untangling or clarifying human experience in any definitive way. Still, we turn to it as we turn to one another for the solace that might come from getting naked and honestly seeing ourselves and others.

Or is that just another pretty story? In the final pages of The Trouble With Men, Shields points to the impulse that unites all of humanity: “There’s no romance without masochism. What’s my point? Someone must be suffering, is all.” To desire is to suffer (everybody knows it).

To order The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, And Power:

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