In the fourth chapter of his new book How Literature Saved My Life, Brown alumnus David Shields contemplates nothing less than the meaning of life: "Isn't everyone's project, on some level, to offer tentative theses regarding what — if anything — we're doing here?"
The chapter is vintage Shields. One moment he quotes Barack Obama's eulogy for a young victim of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona; the next, he is quoting Nietzsche; then Rembrandt; then Ice-T; then Burt Reynolds's immortal Hollywood dictum: "First, it's 'Who's Burt Reynolds?' Then it's 'Get me Burt Reynolds.' Then 'Get me a Burt Reynolds type.' Then 'Get me a young Burt Reynolds.' And then it's 'Who's Burt Reynolds?' "
This "collage" approach to writing, Shields explained during a book tour stop at RISD on Monday evening, first occurred to him in the shower while he was working on his third book, 1992's A Handbook for Drowning. (How Literature Saved My Life is Shields's fourteenth.) Yes, an epiphany in the shower is the ultimate cliché, Shields acknowledges; but it was a revelation nonetheless.
"All literary possibilities opened up for me," he said. "The way my mind thinks — everything is connected to everything else — suddenly seemed transportable into my writing. I could play all the roles I wanted to play: reporter, fantasist, autobiographer, essayist, critic."
A few minutes later, he elaborated for a RISD audience. "I'm not interested in collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled," he said. "I'm interested in collage as, to be honest, an evolution beyond narrative." Conventional memoirs and novels are constructed on the false premise that the world is a coherent whole that can be wrapped up in a tidy revelation by story's end. "Life, though — standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night — flies at us in bright splinters," Shields said.
Before his presentation, I spoke with Shields over coffee at the Brown Bookstore. Our conversation, like Shields's writing, was wildly digressive. We discussed the difference between handsome and ugly male writers ("The former veer toward wise-depressive; the latter, toward brilliant-bitter," Shields writes); the author's inability to change a tire; and the experience — detailed unforgettably in Literature — of reading his Brown girlfriend's diary without her knowledge. The interview has been edited and condensed.
THERE ARE FEW SETTINGS MORE LOADED FOR THIS INTERVIEW THAN A BOOKSTORE AT BROWN UNIVERSITY. I can't tell you how much time I spent here in college; here, and the library. I was here [from] '74 to '78. That's, my goodness, 35 years ago. It's hard to believe. I feel like I totally grew up here, to the degree that I've ever grown up. In high school, I was just completely emotionally [underdeveloped]. I was just very, very, very shy. I had a bad stutter, I had very bad acne. I was like 5'4", weighed 100 pounds; I was like this little shrimp [who] really had trouble speaking. And I just said, "Just forget it. It ain't happening in high school." Not that everyone at Brown was a genius, but at Brown, I found people I could be literary with. I just found my way into my head and into the world. So I still feel unbelievably nostalgic and affectionate toward Providence.