“You probably think of me as — I don’t know — neurotic, overly interior, solipsistic, whatever. But I find you extremely didactic, moralistic, polemical, self-righteous, preachy. Is that unfair?” Whether David Shields’s accusation, directed at his friend and former student Caleb Powell, is fair, is best left to the judgment of readers. That it is outrageously entertaining, as is the rest of this talking book, constructed out of four days’ worth of unceasing dialogue between two old friends and sometime rivals, should go without saying.
Shields invites Powell to spend a long weekend sparring with him, with each to “ferociously defend” the choices they have made in their art and their lives. Shields is an acclaimed essayist, best known for his genre-defying polemic “Reality Hunger.” Powell is a writer whose career never really took off. Shields is in his mid- fifties, with a cushy teaching job at the University of Washington; Powell is his early forties, a reformed world traveler taking care of his three children full-time and writing on the side. Powell is Andre Gregory in “My Dinner with Andre” (a conscious touchstone here), full of colorful stories of international derring-do, and Shields is Wallace Shawn, self-possessed and intellectually secure. Or maybe it’s the other way around. (Furthering the cinematic undertones of the endeavor, Shields’ former student James Franco has directed a film adaptation of the book starring Shields and Powell.)
The mood here is one of anxious camaraderie, two literary men jabbing at each other to prove their mettle. Powell snidely critiques Shields’s pithy, aphoristic writing style, dismissing it as “good bathroom reading,” but their hopscotching debate, leaping from the Khmer Rouge to Dale Peck to Shields’s wife’s thwarted desire for a second child, bears the same channel-hopping sensibility as “Reality Hunger” and its successor “How Literature Saved My Life.” The theme is life vs. art, but the music is to be found in its endless variations. Shields the provocateur enlists Powell in his now-familiar mission of twisting a familiar object inside-out until it appears profoundly strange, new.
Both men are prickly, occasionally arrogant, and often uninterested in the other’s point of view. Shields, intent on proving his superiority with the thickness of his wallet, enjoys telling Powell how much money he earns. Powell shrugs off most of his former teacher’s hard-won wisdom about writing. We cannot always tell whether they are emoting or performing, baring their souls or caricaturing themselves, but the long-form discussions are surprisingly revealing (both men will likely be hearing from their families about some of the embarrassing anecdotes they share here) and reflective of the internal struggle they share: do I work, or do I live? The specter of David Foster Wallace, whose searching intellect and relentless self-examination serve as a model and a warning, is summoned repeatedly.
Shields is especially cutting on the paragons and defenders of the novel. The New Yorker’s James Wood is “a sea captain for nineteenth-century novels.” Vladimir Nabokov has “a really bad ear.” They both rag on Jonathan Franzen as a mock-Wallace, all erudition and no heart.
Powell is pleased with his life, fulfilled by his family, but disappointed by the lack of acknowledgment his work has accrued. Shields is proud of his success but worried he has never really cut loose. Shields wants to make himself new, and Powell is here to tell him he is hopelessly caught up in the minutiae of his own existence: “You’re way too focused on yourself. You’re fifty-five. Time to focus on other things.” Powell is a student of suffering, stirred by the Cambodian genocide above all, and looks to the collective traumas of the past for answers about the world’s injustices. Shields is dismissive: “You don’t think anyone who lives an ordinary life has plenty of trouble and torment to write about?”
Powell is arguing for the pain of the extraordinary as his artistic and moral core, while Shields directs his attention to the more ordinary pain of our workaday lives. It is an argument, though they might be loath to acknowledge it, that none other than Franzen introduces into his novel “The Corrections,” when Chip Lambert describes the cigarette burns on his palm to an Eastern European political dissident as having been acquired in a “different kind of prison.” These two middle-aged men, trapped in comfortable prisons of their own making, are satisfied and disappointed in equal measures. They settle nothing but dispute everything. The result is a warm, funny, and charming book that questions not only what it means to live for art, but what it means to live.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.”