David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life looks like a book. It has 224 pages, printed with ink forming words, and words forming paragraphs that form chapters. Knopf will publish it February 5 and those who dare read this uncategorizable form of non-fiction will speed eagerly through it—although a few readers might rip out pages in anguish. Shields’ new work wants desperately to believe in books. It posits, after all, that books contain therapeutic, even life-saving properties. But where on the bookshelf do you put a book that doesn’t trust words?
Within these highly literary pages, Shields undermines words using the only tool he has: words. He reaches a dead-end about half way through, determining that “[…] language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite. It never fails to fail us, never doesn’t defeat us, is bottomless…—But here I am, trying to paper over the gaps with dried-up glue.” Continually we understand that we don’t understand. (Commence the tearing out of pages by enraged readers.) In the spirit of the text, he hopelessly concludes and then plunges forward, negotiating with and arguing against himself. His inner monologue reads more like a dialogue or an intimate conversation between dear friends.
Through storytelling that refuses to conform to a strict chronology, Shields attempts an autobiographical collage. Endearingly circuitous, the narrative starts somewhere near the beginning—after a brief detour into George W. Bush’s presidency—with an analysis of Spiderman as a metaphor for male adolescence and the struggle to masculinity. Shields then traces the progress of his literary brain through his years at Brown, into young adulthood on his father’s couch, and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, making frequent stops to discuss the larger questions of existence that should loom over every autobiography. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Shields creates a sort of manifesto for his experimental style. He claims the poetic or book-length essay “makes nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth, an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological and existential questions…”
Though he diverts often into other, equally thought-provoking areas of inquiry, Shields focuses his investigation mainly on the epistemology of language. He asks whether the artist can ever be understood, whether understanding is only the reader seeing his or her own projections reflected. Shields’ complex relationship toward the fallible system begins with his boyhood stutter. He argues, not without grammatically replicating his stutter, that “Language is what differentiates human beings from other species, so when I stutter, I find it genuinely dehumanizing. I still feel a psychic need to write myself into, um, existence.”
These eloquent fragments of criticism and memory all mournfully revolve around a central conundrum: the limit of language and the inescapable necessity of that limited system. We expect language to bridge loneliness, to collapse otherness, to reduce pain in the sad human animal. We write seeking the companionship of understanding, while knowing that “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.” In the end, Shields offers us either triumph at having found this answer, or despair at knowing what the answer is.