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Enough About YouReview - Enough About You
Adventures in Autobiography
by David Shields
Simon & Schuster, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 21st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 21)

David Shields, a professor of English at the University of Washington, sums up his book in imagining his reader’s response, on page 133. 

“Okay, okay, okay, we get it: you stutter and so, irredeemably self-conscious, you’re devoted to yourself as a subject, also as a symbolic subject, even as some sort of featured player in a collage movie.  Don’t you finally want to get outside yourself? …” … I want to get past myself, of course I do, but the only way I know how to do this is to ride along on my own nerve endings; the only way is deeper in.

Enough About You is a slight work; it reads like a collection of self-indulgent columns from a college newspaper, except that Shields has five previous books, and refers to them fairly often.  On the back are blurbs full of high praise from Wayne Koestenbaum, Vivian Gornick, Charles Baxter, and David Gates, and I think the worse of them for such bad judgment.  Shields writes how he identifies with college baseball coach Bobby Knight, because for both of them, “what animates us inevitably ails us” (p. 172).  He admires author Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat, Hilton Als’s The Women, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, V.S. Naipaul’s A Way in the World, and all the novels of J.D. Salinger.  He is an ardent admirer of the actor Bill Murray, and devotes a whole chapter to extolling Murray’s virtues.  Shields ricochets from one topic to another, and there’s also some general point he wants to make in the work as a whole.  The problem, of course, is that readers have no prior reason to care about Shields’ opinions, and Shields gives readers little reason to care. 

The pretension of the book, signaled it its subtitle, is that this is an exploration at the boundaries of autobiography.  This could be a fascinating enterprise, since the genre of autobiography and especially the more specialized genre of the memoir deserve scrutiny, and there’s much to be written on the role of self-narration in modern life and the nature of self-revelation.  Yet Shields seems to have nothing interesting to say about these issues.  The book has a slightly post-modern feel to it, in its reluctance to conform to the standard formats of autobiography or essay, and some might defend him by suggesting that he is inventing a different format, inspired by the many works he admires and mentions.  Shields prefaces the book with a quotation from William Gass, “I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.”  When it comes down to it, though, Shields discusses his life as a writer, in his relationship with his father and his partner Rachel, his identity as a Jew, and the importance of his stuttering to his development, and he says nothing to give his reader any reason to think there’s anything particularly difficult in telling his story.  There’s no truth that a standard format could not capture, and a standard format would have relieved the reader of having to put up with much of Shields’ self-indulgence.  Without its tantalizing nod to fragmentation, so much prized in literary theory, it might become all too apparent that readers have no reason to be interested in Shields at all, and would be best off ignoring his book altogether. 

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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