David Shields 1956–
American novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Shields's life and career through 1996.
Shields is best known for fiction that focuses on the coming-of-age theme. In Dead Languages (1989), a young stutterer experiences the failure of language as a means of communicating with parents, first loves, and society at large. A Handbook for Drowning (1992) focuses on coming-of-age issues but presents them in a series of interconnected short stories around a central character. Shields's most recent work, the autobiographical Remote (1996), is an idiosyncratic study of pop culture.
Shields, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, received a bachelors degree from Brown University in 1978 and a masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1980, where he also began a teaching career. Later, while a researcher and writer for California governor Pat Brown, he published his first novel, Heroes (1984). Shields continues to write and teach at the University of Washington, Seattle.
In his first novel, Heroes, Shields writes about lost innocence and sports. Biederman, a middle-aged sportswriter for a small-town Iowa newspaper, meets Belvyn Menkus, a transfer student and basketball phenomenon. Aware that Menkus has been illegally recruited from an Iowa college, Biederman is torn between exposing the wrongdoing—and getting a post on a big-city newspaper—or turning away and sacrificing his journalistic dreams for the sake of Menkus and the game of basketball. Shields's next novel, Dead Languages, focuses on Jeremy Zorn and his family; the Zorn family and Jeremy's stuttering, in particular, mirror the author's real-life situation. As Jeremy struggles to overcome his disfluency and find his place in life, he must deal with his domineering, career-minded mother and his apathetic, manic-depressive father while teaching in a summer school program and managing a romance with a drug-addicted school drop-out. A Handbook for Drowning retains the coming-of-age theme in a random collection of short stories that provide a glimpse into young Walt Jaffe's life. Like Jeremy, Walt too must contend with a strong activist mother, an ineffectual father (who obsesses about the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial), the joys and sorrows of first love, and relationships won and lost. Remote is a loosely structured postmodern memoir about contemporary American life and culture that incorporates essays, photographs, footnotes, and remembrances. As one critic observes, Remote "channel-surfs" through modern society, with Shields offering his personal assessment of pop-culture topics including Oprah Winfrey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, autographed baseball cards, and character actor Bob Balaban.
Shields's work has generally been favorably received by critics. Although most critics have focused on Shields's success at developing the coming-of-age theme in new and engaging ways, others have mentioned his lyrical and rhythmic language and taut, observant style. Shields's ability to present the ordinary events of life with wit and candor, such as Jeremy Zorn's stuttering attempts to educate children in Dead Languages, has also won praise. Critics have noted the postmodernist style and autobiographical characteristics of Shields's loosely structured A Handbook for Drowning and Remote's collage of autobiography, essay, footnotes, and photographs as well. While some critics have suggested that Shields's most recent works are uninspiring and lack originality, most agree that his literary style and creative use of language are substantial and contribute to the overall appeal of his books.
SOURCE: "A Novel Neat as a Slamdunk," in Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Smith favorably assesses the style, plot, and characters of Heroes.]
Al Biederman's goal at the tender age of 10 was to perfect the double-push jump shot. In two years he achieved it. "Practice makes perfect" could easily have been this child's motto. He practiced every day and night to the exclusion of friends and family to refine a nearly impossible maneuver on—and in the air above—a basketball court.
Al had an early love of basketball and a desire to see things through to completion. These two things conflict with one another in Al's adult life and form the core of Heroes.
The reader is introduced to Al in the present tense. He is past 30 and previously fouled out in a basketball career while still in college: a knee injury put him on the sidelines for life. On the rebound he has taken a sportswriting job with a small newspaper in River City, Iowa, the home of River City College.
Al is in the competition for a much better job with a large newspaper in Milwaukee. He and two other applicants have made the cut. One of the three will be the high scorer and land the job. What Al needs is a scoop. Milwaukee is pressing him for a hot story that will ensure him the job.
Al is smitten with the prospects for a college...
(The entire section is 557 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Heroes, in The New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, p. 22.
[In the following review, Krystal presents a mixed assessment of Heroes.]
"What thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross." This would seem to be the wisdom granted to a middle-aged sports reporter, Al Biederman, in David Shields's first novel, Heroes. Stuck in a small Midwestern college town, Biederman loves his wife but is unfaithful to her, loves his diabetic son but isn't always there for him, loves basketball but (to land a job on The Milwaukee Journal) may have to expose recruiting violations in the case of Belvyn Menkus, a white transfer student who plays the game "like he just invented jazz." I say "white" because Belvyn (a name that bounces into the heart) learned to play among Chicago blacks who demanded that he constantly feed them the ball. So Belvyn becomes a great give-and-go man with a feel for the game that drives Biederman to fits of weepy, ecstatic, almost sexual love for this otherwise boorish student. Will Biederman write that investigative piece, even though his wife, friends and boss are all bending the rules for Belvyn? Can he bear to see Belvyn benched? Like a good point guard, Mr. Shields knows how to control the flow of a game. The story moves along nicely, although he also commits some outstanding fouls: "beds that had wheels the size of my headache," "beneath their...
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SOURCE: "Mother Casts Her Shadow on Her Young Son's Life," in The New York Times, April 26, 1989, p. C20.
[Hoffman is a Polish educator, autobiographer, and editor of The New York Times Book Review. In the following mixed review of Dead Languages, she examines Shields's portrayal of Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist of the novel.]
Of course, language has been the obsession and the true subject of many writers; of course, it has been their hard block of Carrara marble as well as their fine chisel, their Protean deceiver as well as the deep well of truth. But rarely has language been as much of a prison house, antagonist and a poison weapon as it is in David Shields's original but unsettling, and finally unsettled, novel [Dead Languages].
Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist and narrator of Dead Languages, is a stutterer, a person sick of language and ill with it, and much of the novel—Mr. Shields's second—consists of inventive, often lyrical reflections on how language can become a diversion from communication rather than a means to it. Jeremy, a child of the 1960's, grows up in one of those hyper-verbal radical-chic families in which the relentlessness of articulation corresponds to the unspoken drive of ambition.
Father, for a while, writes a tennis column for the West Bay Sun (the Zorns live in Los Angeles, then in San Francisco), exercises...
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SOURCE: "The Bittersweet Story of a Young Stutterer," in The Boston Globe, May 24, 1989.
[In the following mixed review of Dead Languages, Gilbert applauds Shields's ability to use Jeremy's stuttering as a metaphor for the contemporary problems of communication but charges that the plot lacks cohesiveness and believability.]
You'd think the coming-of-age novel would have knocked itself out by now. But when the ancient theme of young blood is infused with adrenaline, it's easy to see why it's so popular among younger writers. Dead Languages, the second novel by David Shields, is a fresh, humorous growing-up tale with a bitter twist: The hero, Jeremy Zorn, is a tortured stutterer, a soulful, obsessive boy struggling in a daily battle to communicate clearly. As he narrates his history, with a wry good humor that belies his constant pain, Jeremy transforms his lifelong antagonism with language into a universal plight: the failure to be understood. Coincidentally, the time is the 1960s, the place is San Francisco, and an army of freedom-minded Americans are screaming to be heard amid peace rallies in Golden Gate Park and the towering trees of Muir Woods.
Though Dead Languages is far from a textbook examination of chronic stuttering, there is a light touch of philosophical analysis that nicely opens up Jeremy's private hell. The "disfluency" that plagues his adolescence...
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SOURCE: "Truth Stutters," in The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1989, p. 22.
[In the following mixed review, Toynton compliments the literary style and characters of Dead Languages but charges that the author fails to clarify "what Jeremy's quest has been for or his indignation about."]
If language itself can't be trusted, as the deconstructionists would have it, and if all our fumbling attempts at connection are doomed, as much of modern fiction suggests, what more appropriate metaphor can there be for our condition than a speech defect? "Stutterers are truth-tellers," says Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist of David Shields's new novel [Dead Languages]; "everyone else is lying." Yet Jeremy, a stutterer in a family of people for whom language, if nothing else, comes easily, wants desperately to be rid of his stammer, badge of honor though it may be. Much of the book is taken up with his anguish over the problem and his various attempts to correct it—even though "only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world's content."
Mr. Shields's own language is wonderfully fluent—colloquial and elegiac by turns—and when his sense of the ridiculous comes to the fore, as it does in deadpan descriptions of Jeremy's stint as a teacher's aide in a summer school program for black children and his romance with a cheerfully illiterate druggy, his...
(The entire section is 740 words.)
SOURCE: "Boy Talk," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 25, 1989, p. 5.
[Cahill is an American educator and literary critic. In the following review, he unfavorably assesses Dead Languages, claiming that the story is neither "comedy [nor] tragedy," and that it gets lost in metaphors and in the self-indulgence of the protagonist.]
It is hard work nowadays to write what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, an autobiographical novel of growing up. Though it is a form that most first novelists find inescapable, the great challenge is to make something new, something that cannot be labeled merely an also-ran to Joyce or Hesse or Spark or Salinger. Each year the competition grows fiercer as the unexplored portions of this particular literary rain forest shrink in size. One must find either a new way to say the old things (in a time when new ways seem to have been exhausted in the frenzies of modernism and post-modernism) or, even more difficult, something new to say.
Basically, there appear to be three solutions. One is charm. Even if you are only saying the old things in the old way, the charm of your youthful self, the fresh and tender haplessness of your own true exploits, just slightly exaggerated, can carry the day and delight everyone but the purse-lipped purist. Another, less common solution is to offer new subject matter. But this usually depends on the author having...
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SOURCE: "The Raw and the Cooked," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 12, July 20, 1989, pp. 30-1.
[In the following excerpt, Towers applauds Shields's literary style and ability to "stage scenes" but charges that Dead Languages concentrates too narrowly on Jeremy's preoccupations.]
During the past decade in particular, the line separating fiction from autobiography has frequently seemed on the point of being almost erased. Novel after novel has appeared in which not only the background and chronology but also the major events of the first-person narrator's life closely parallel what is publicly known of the author's. The material is offered up uncooked, so to speak, without the subtlety and depth derived from imaginative transmuting of personal experience into fiction. The gains in journalistic immediacy are generally offset by the absence of the play of novelistic invention (a very different matter from autobiographical fibbing in the manner of Ford Madox Ford or Lillian Hellman).
Conversely, certain novels by writers of whom we know nothing except what is revealed on the dust jacket can have an autobiographical tone that at once distinguishes them from other realistically grounded stories in the first person that we unhesitatingly accept as fiction. One is not tempted to read The Catcher in the Rye as a largely factual account of an episode in J.D....
(The entire section is 1486 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Dead Languages, in Boston Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, August, 1989, p. 26.
[Kennedy, also known as Pamela Kennedy, is an American writer, critic, and host of a Boston-based cable TV show. In the following review, she favorably assesses the literary style, themes, and autobiographical elements of Dead Languages.]
There's an old fiction workshop maxim: Never write about writing. But, in Dead Languages, David Shields has done just that. Not only is every major character a writer, the narrator is a stutterer who's obsessed with language. It's a risky premise and, in less capable hands, this novel might die of self-consciousness.
In fact, Shields is at his best when writing about writing. He dazzles us with literary fireworks—plot twists, complicated puns that sum up a situation, and hairpin turns of phrase. Perhaps the most striking example is the novel's climax, a cliff-hanger in which the main character, Jeremy, literally falls from a cliff. Leaving Jeremy hanging in the air, the narrator (an older Jeremy) comments on the structure of fiction as expounded in Aristotle's Poetics, and the critical point at which, right around the middle of good Aristotelian books, rising action transforms into falling action. "But," says Jeremy, "the cause of the falling action isn't supposed to be quite so literally A FALL. It's supposed to be a little more...
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SOURCE: A review of Dead Languages, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 276-77.
[In the following review, Byrne examines the theme of survival in Dead Languages.]
David Shields's Dead Languages is about survival—as a stutterer—in an overly articulate family, "a family in which language is seen as the magic key to success. Both parents are journalists…. Both are determined to make their mark upon the world with words," Jeremy Zorn's story, it would seem, begins at age four ("My family was only a family. It wasn't a nightmare. It wasn't a concentration camp. Each of us isn't the sum total of all the faults of his family. That's impossible. That can't be who we are…. My family was living in a language whereas I was dying in it …") and ends with the death of his mother ("Just a party, as Mother's will specified, 'to celebrate life rather than mourn death.' Some celebration. A folk guitarist upon whom Mother had always had a crush played poorly. Father wept in the den. She'd been carried out of the bedroom in a plastic bag. Her body was burned. The ashes were scattered at sea. Whenever I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, I think not of suicide, as Father does, but of Mother, swimming").
But it's not that simple. A more important incident is described regarding Jeremy's father, who, after hearing about his father's death, tells...
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SOURCE: "Tales of a Man Young and Old, Snapshots of a Life," in The New York Times, December 27, 1991, p. C24.
[Kakutani is an American critic who writes regularly for The New York Times. In the following review of A Handbook for Drowning, Kakutani claims that Shields's plot takes the "seemingly mundane" and "invests it with layers of psychological resonance."]
In his last novel, the critically acclaimed Dead Languages (1989), David Shields turned the story of Jeremy Zorn, an adolescent boy with a bad stutter, into a kind of metaphor for the difficulties of communication and the limitations of language itself. Though the book occasionally threatened to buckle under the weight of its philosophical implications, its youthful hero and his family emerged as memorable and finely observed characters, people with the power to insinuate themselves into the reader's own imagination.
Now, in his latest book—a collection of interlinked stories titled A Handbook for Drowning—Mr. Shields works a variation on the material in Dead Languages, stripping away the more symbolic aspects of the story to focus on the coming of age of a young man. The hero of Handbook, one Walter Jaffe, is Jeremy Zorn without the stutter, a sensitive, introspective boy attempting to come to terms with his family, and to sort out his own sexual, artistic and intellectual impulses....
(The entire section is 853 words.)
SOURCE: "Shields' 'First Novel' Comes Now, after Several Others," in The Hartford Courant, January 12, 1992.
[In the following review, Coates discusses the themes and arrangement of the interconnected stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]
Time was when a writer published his first novel first. In a kinder, gentler time, publishers often went out on a limb financially to print a youngster's obligatorily autobiographical coming-of-age fiction. It is the kind of thing one has to write early to get the self out of the way, as Nabokov said, concluding with the protagonist producing (voilà!) the very book the reader was holding.
Since the first novel has become a cliché relegated to roundup reviews, savvy fiction writers now usually open with something more accomplished, as David Shields did with his actual first novel, Heroes, in 1984, which was that rare thing, a really good sports novel that did with basketball what Mark Harris or Bernard Malamud did with baseball: Make the passion, pull and mythological grace of the game integral to the characters.
After last year's novel, the linguistic tour de force Dead Languages, Shields in these 24 short stories [A Handbook for Drowning] now gives us his first novel, the writer learning to write, here named Walt Jaffe. Jaffe is the recurrent hero of a recently revived old form, the series of linked stories with...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
SOURCE: "Hey, Wait! Nobody's Perfect!," in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1992, p. 14.
[In the following mixed review, Berne examines the theme of obsession and how it drives the narrative in the stories of A Handbook for Drowning.]
What's both interesting and disappointing about obsessions is that eventually everybody has the same ones: We're afraid of death, hungry for love, anxious for approval, spooked by the past—only the variations differ. So it's no surprise that authors write out of their own obsessions; the surprise is when they transform the banal into something significant, when they present an obsession we instinctively recognize but feel we have never met before.
David Shields' third work of fiction, A Handbook for Drowning, introduces a character driven by familiar obsessions. Walter Jaffe, the hero of this collection of related stories, is also preoccupied with defects—everything from his girlfriend's deformed toe to his parents' self-conscious political idealism. Sometimes this fixation can be funny, as in the story called "The War on Poverty," in which Walt describes his mother's earnest attempt to befriend Darryl, "a young man from Watts." To make Darryl feel welcome, she "prepared dishes such as black-eyed peas, grits, and Southern fried steak, which she thought might appeal especially to him but which neither he nor anyone else was able to...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
SOURCE: "Striking Snapshots of a Drowning Family," in Newsday, January 20, 1992.
[In the following favorable review of A Handbook for Drowning, Cryer asserts that "Shields's strength lies in setting up ironic play between expectations and reality," which results in "tautly constructed, tautly observant stories."]
Readers of David Shields' book of interrelated stories, A Handbook for Drowning, may wonder why the author chose not to work his material into a novel. After all, the story of Walt Jaffe's coming-of-age in California during the '50s and '60s has all the makings of an intriguing novel—initiation into sex and manhood, parents forever on the brink of divorce, making peace with the age of flower power.
Yet freed from the conventional novel's linear progression, Shields has the latitude not to flesh out a character's background or fill in plot lines or aim toward an identifiable climax. The short-story format permits, even luxuriates in, a pointillist mysteriousness regarding all these elements. Given enough fictional sleight-of-hand, the slice of life, the single moment of revelation, is enough.
In A Handbook for Drowning, Shields offers a handful of snapshots of Walt and the Jaffes that is quite enough indeed. Even if some of the stories by themselves are rather slight, their cumulative effect is powerful. Collectively, these short, vaguely...
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SOURCE: "Shields' Fresh Stories of an American Coming of Age," in The Boston Globe, January 22, 1992.
[Taylor is an American novelist as well as an art, music, film, and theater critic. In the following review, he discusses how the coming-of-age theme is advanced by Shields's literary style and the arrangement of the interconnected stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]
David Shields brings fresh insights to an old theme, the shame and tenderness of an American coming of age. A Handbook for Drowning consists of 24 loosely linked stories about a young man named Walter Jaffe, a Holden Caulfield for the 1990s, whose self-absorbed blunders, painful as they are, represent stages of his growth.
Drowning, of course, is the operative image, and the stories make adroit use of beach, swimming pool, riverside and lake settings. The significance of the title, however, resides in ideology as well as in fears that one may cease to be.
Walter's parents are Jewish progressives consumed by dogooder political causes. His father, Leonard, is fixated on the Rosenbergs and their execution; Sylvia, the mother, explains to little Walt "that there were two McCarthys: one was a man with a red nose and a jowly chin who, occasionally in old television footage and all the time in his father's fury, asked 'Are you now or have you ever been?' The other McCarthy wrote marvelous little poems to...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A Handbook for Drowning, in VLS, No. 102, February, 1992, p. 7.
[In the following unfavorable review, Seligman charges that Shields's literary technique detracts from the plots, themes, and potential "warmth" of the stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]
The David Shields whose first book, Heroes, appeared in 1984 barely resembles the novelist who brought out Dead Languages five years later. The earlier Shields was uncertain, a little windy, and ordinary; by 1989 he had become an artist, spare and astringent. Dead Languages concerns a stutterer. Shields had researched disfluency, understood its devastations, and knew how to work a metaphor so cruelly that he raised the book to another, richer plane. The richness made up for its deficits: the familiar coming-of-age story; the angry fixation on parents—which, like headbanging unhappiness, is a mark of adolescence. He didn't know what to do with his story after a while; the mother died of cancer, and that was it. But he made stuttering, which has been low comedy for centuries, into something horribly real. There was no comedy, even cheap comedy. (That, perhaps, was a deficit, too.)
The interlocking stories in Shields's new collection, A Handbook for Drowning, read like outtakes from Dead Languages. The central character's name has changed from Jeremy Zorn to Walter Jaffe, the...
(The entire section is 707 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A Handbook for Drowning, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, Spring, 1992, pp. 157-58.
[Below, Olsen offers a favorable assessment of A Handbook for Drowning.]
In his third book of fiction and first finely crafted collection of twenty-four short stories [A Handbook for Drowning], David Shields weaves a crazy quilt of psychologically haunting tales that explore drowning as a metaphor for obsession. Lots of people go under here, figuratively and literally, from the man who while scratching his girlfriend's back imagines penetrating right down to her vertebrae, to the university student who's unable to stop reading Prometheus Bound in preparation for a quiz.
Most of these are quiet, domestic, sadly funny pieces set fifteen or twenty years ago in suburban rooms, urban dorms, and sunny beaches in California and Rhode Island. Some, like "Father's Day," a tender account of a father and son attending a Mariners game, and "The Sixties," a whimsical rethinking of Leonard Michaels's "In the Fifties," are almost essayistic. At the center of each stands Walter Jaffe, a geekish young man who carries a bright, innocent belligerence within him, the kind of guy who rummages through his lover's stuff while she sleeps, reads her journal behind her back, and forces her to dance against her will in a sleazy bar.
Throughout, Shields uses...
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SOURCE: A review of Remote, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 6, February 5, 1996, p. 75.
[In the following review, the critic presents a mixed assessment of Remote.]
Mixing journalism, cultural criticism and autobiography, the 52 original short pieces collected [in Remote] document novelist Shields's obsession with celebrity, images and the general ephemera of popular culture. He joins a test audience viewing potential sitcoms, follows A Current Affair reporter Mike Watkiss on assignment, muses on stuttering Howard Stern sidekick John Melendez and collects people's dreams about late rocker Kurt Cobain. What makes Shields's perspective on popular culture so interesting is its highly personal, even confessional nature: his essays often examine the private connections he feels to public figures and events. At times, however, Shields (Dead Languages) slips into narcissism; at others, such as in his "found" essays, composed entirely of bumper-sticker slogans, he is sterile if clever. But Shields is a gifted writer capable of surprising perceptions and considerable wit, and his idiosyncratic book offers intriguing insights into the ways the media can shape both the identities and the perceptions of its viewers.
(The entire section is 178 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Remote, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 3, February 15, 1996, p. 158.
[In the following review, Braun presents a positive assessment of Remote.]
Shields, a novelist (A Handbook for Drowning) and professor at the University of Washington, presents "a self-portrait given over to a single subject and splintered into fifty-two pieces." His post-modern autobiography [Remote], complete with childhood photo opportunities, is quirky and filled with topical allusions to the infamous (O.J. Simpson) and the not so famous (Bob Balaban, a character actor). His work consists of an assortment of off-the-wall observations and digressions (on television and movies, desire, acne, sports, etc.); transcriptions (53 roadside Wall Drug signs in South Dakota, dreams about Kurt Cobain, bumper stickers, etc.); and references (often with footnotes) filtered through his offbeat viewpoint. In a subtle way, Shields imparts the vague cynicism and bemusement of one growing up in middle America in the Sixties and Seventies. Entertaining and original, this is highly recommended for general consumption.
(The entire section is 160 words.)
SOURCE: "Change the Channel," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXVII, No. 9, February 26, 1996, p. 68.
[Giles is an American novelist and critic. In the following mixed review, he characterizes Remote as a "weird collection of essays and remembrances," and "a book for a society sick of books."]
Literary fiction tends to be a sleepy dominion—so few people read it that publishers seem to consider it pro bono work—and every so often a writer bolts for where the action is. Here goes David Shields. The author, 39, previously made a tiny name for himself as a writer of artful coming-of-age fiction. Now he has delivered Remote, a determinedly weird collection of essays and remembrances, a book for a society sick of books.
Remote channel-surfs through 52 quickie chapters—on Oprah, on Rousseau, on bumper stickers, on movie stars, on childhood, on the significance of tilting one's head in a photograph—that are meant to accumulate in power until they become the story of both Shields's life and ours. It's a funny, fizzy book, but drink it fast, because it's going to taste flat in the morning. In general, Shields casts himself as an alienated, covetous nerd who's wondering why we're all such alienated, covetous nerds, why we're so obsessed with celebrities when they make us even more depressed about "our unamplified little lives." Roving far and wide in the pop-culture universe,...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
SOURCE: "Holy Hypochondria, Batman!," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 11.
[Mars-Jones is an English fiction writer and critic. In the following unfavorable review, he examines Shields's treatment of pop culture in Remote.]
As a boy addicted to television, especially Batman, David Shields made a list of Robin's alliterative "Holy" exclamations—Holy Homicide, Holy Hurricane and so on—partly because they represented an enviable fluency to someone who, like Mr. Shields, had a stutter. Finally, he sent his only copy of the list to the producers, hoping somehow to attach himself to the show he spent all week thinking about. When he received a form letter thanking him for his interest, plus an autographed photo of Batman, he turned against the show and never watched it again.
Mr. Shields sought to turn pop-cultural obsession into an identity, but also showed an ability to turn his devotion abruptly to contempt. This almost excessively revealing anecdote appears in Remote, a fragmentary sequence of essays that includes elements of journalistic exercise, photo album, abstract gossip (revelations from "Writer C" about "Writer D") and personal history: Mr. Shields reprints the postcard messages he sent home from summer camp and fills many pages with lists of bumper stickers. His main theme is a preference for the secondhand over the direct: "I don't know...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
SOURCE: "The Media and Me," in New York Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 9, March 4, 1996, pp. 68-9.
[Kirn is an American journalist, short story writer, novelist, and critic. In the following mixed review of Remote, he applauds the use of autobiographical "quick-take musings on the media" but claims that Shields's "comedy schlock references" are shallow and old.]
Assuming that books are food for thought, we should be able to sort them into groups. There are the virtuous vegetables (poetry and essays). The sustaining meats and cheeses (literary novels, biographies, histories). The energizing grains and cereals (detective and romance novels, Hollywood memoirs). But there are newer, synthetic edibles, too, that are less the products of nature than of science. David Shields's Remote belongs to one of these. This breezy, sideways autobiography, which seeks to reveal the author's soul via some quick-take musings on the media, is the literary answer to fake fat. Blurbed to the max by pop iconologists such as Wayne Koestenbaum and David Halberstam, Remote is a book designed to go down easy and leave no aftertaste. This is the New Higher Slickness perfected. After an early twinge of satisfaction, it passes through the system without absorption, leaving the reader faintly stimulated but essentially unchanged. Remote is a guilt-free, bite-size head treat. An intellectual Snackwell. It's even, as...
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