A Review of David Shields’ The Trouble with Men
March 15, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Vivian Wagner
David Shields’ The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is a wide-ranging and sometimes chaotic look at masculinity in our culture, as well as an exploration of his own personal and idiosyncratic experiences as a man.
I have to admit that this is not an easy book to read, not because of the subject matter so much as its strange, free-wheeling structure. Ostensibly addressed to his wife, the book is only partly in Shields’ own voice. Most of the book is actually a wild collage of quotes and paraphrases from books, articles, essays, chatrooms, and interviews. These other sources are cited in brackets at the end of paragraphs, but the citations are cursory, just names or brief mentions of context, and there’s no traditionally academic bibliography to account for them.
Often, while reading this text, I’d come across an interesting passage and mark it, thinking it was part of Shields’ own story, only to find that it was another’s voice or story or comment, something from Brigid Brophy, say, or Bret Easton Ellis or Walt Whitman or Donald Trump.
After being caught this way several times, I realized that the book’s odd structure is not a bug but a feature. It’s what this book is about. It’s a book, at least in part, about resisting a coherent story, about the perils of intimacy, and about the ways that we’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. In the book’s universe, these dozens of other voices are, in all their bewildering and contradictory variety, Shields’ own.
Still, I found myself hunting through the text for Shields. I looked for those passages that were his and his alone. I wanted to know his story. I began to mark those places with a star and “HIS.” And yes, I started to see how these pronouns were inevitably gendering both the text and my response to it.
The few paragraphs that are actually Shields reveal this: He’s writing to his wife. He wants to express both his love for his wife and his frustration with his marriage and himself. He wants to get at what it means to be a man, what it means to be married, and what it means to be on the twenty-first century’s roller coaster of sex and gender.
As he says in a rare moment of straightforward candor in the opening chapter, “This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy. How did I get this way? What is this way? Our marriage involving this way. Attempt to stop being this way. Implications of being this way.”
Shields explores the ways that he came of age as a man in a culture that equates vulnerability with weakness, and this book struggles against this paradigm. He wants to be vulnerable. He wants to tell a different story. He wants to wade through all the vagaries of male sexuality to discover what’s at its soft heart.
In short, he wants to tell his wife that he loves her.
At the end of the final chapter he finally stops quoting and paraphrasing the cacophony of others. It’s him. HIS, I wrote in the margin: “I dearly/desperately want a real marriage—whatever that means. I think it means two people standing before each other completely naked; does such a thing exist? I don’t know, but in opposition to that essay we read in praise of marriage made of masks, I still want it (the unmasking).”
And then, there’s this direct address, vulnerable and pleading and somehow heartbreaking:
Do you love this book? Do you hate it? Will it mark the end of our marriage? The beginning of it? Putative (true?) goal for this book: a greater intimacy (at a minimum, candor?) between us.
The nicest thing you’ve ever said to me (admittedly, this was an eternity ago—on the inside of a card on our third anniversary):
What you think of as your weakness I think of as your vulnerability, which I love.
This passage is addressed his wife, yes, but it’s also addressed to the reader, who has, perhaps, been addled by the pages full of cultural flotsam to the point of giving up. Don’t give up, Shields seems to say. I’m here. I want to connect. I want to change. I want to be with you. Please don’t leave.
And I didn’t leave. I’m not going anywhere. I’m turning back to the book’s first page to try again.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.