Majoring in Discomfort: John Domini Interviews David Shields

The “incremental perturbation”? Maybe three pages, in an anthology. But it is about finding other people baffling, and what you do with that. I think when you mention nebbishes, when we speak of schlemiels and schnooks, I mean, just look at my subtitle, Takes & Mistakes. He was trying to keep from, from shitting his pants? Everywhere Sebald goes, he’s walking across both some graveyard of Europe and also his own graveyard, always closer to death. Like the thing for children, the Bounce Castle   —
Yes. Oh now, Gilgamesh. The work dries up and floats away. That one and “Life Story,” all bumper stickers …
Exactly. The Smoking Diaries tells the story beautifully. It’s about losers, and I double down on their losing. Kundera’s first books, my title could almost be his subtitle. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s alive, but I know it’s dead serious about this baffling question of other people. Like I’m also influenced by stand-up comedy, from the Book of Job right up to Amy Schumer. It’s righteous — but meantime, what about the American man? It’s hardly manhood at all, if you ask old Hemingway. Then there’s Cosell, who had his moment but who was largely vilified. There’s Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, the great, bleak passage about self-understanding. His 20th title (a few share authorship) amounts to one long self-revelation. And my way, I’d say it was mostly through research. It looks to the uninitiated reader like a, I don’t know — a digression without an exit strategy. Look how he holds himself! Every artist now has to say how our work’s relevant to the overwhelming political discourse. For me, the essay tradition — which goes back to Augustine — majors in discomfort. All they’re saying is, “I’m terrible,” and it creates disequilibrium. Let’s say for argument’s sake that what you’ve got is as brainy as Sebald or Kundera. But I’d go back to where we started, to sports and its clichés. [Glenn Frankel’s High Noon.]
That’s so interesting! Sebald points out that any life is a descent into darkness. I mean, I respect him, but with his devotion to the traditional novel, we couldn’t be more different. He had to lie down between takes. Your mom, she almost embodies the movement, and you understand it’s just. And I don’t say this in a critical way. That’s basically the strategy of the book, to lean hard into our loserdom, since that’s what’s most human about us. The tragicomedy of the human misunderstanding, in which you being John Domini, you want to go to epic heroes and like that. Yeah, though in that section for me the anchoring essay is “Delilah.” The radio personality, you remember — an amazing woman. A youthful visit to a massage parlor. You know, I think a crucial essay in Other People is the Cosell essay, “The Wound and The Bow.” The title’s from Edmund Wilson, of course, and I hope the piece is one of those that lifts the book to a larger purpose. Which is important work, at a moment when many of the classic signifiers of manhood don’t apply. That book is out of a whole different culture, and I mean, compared to Sebald, anyone’s going to look lighter or more playful or whatever. John, yes — incredible book! David, the project may’ve been inchoate, as you pulled the book together. Now what is our comfy American manhood compared to that? Really? ¤
John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, short stories. In 1996 came Remote, his first full-length work of nonfiction. To me that essay’s one of the lynchpins, and then there’s the Howard Cosell essay, and the David Milch … Let me start with that, the way each of the five sections has a kind of anchoring essay. Okay, but how’s your book actually about something serious? And it’s a metaphor of human relations! I’m fascinated by how a comedian sets the room tilting, all through painful confession. It’s sort of fascinating how we’re so different. Maybe I’ll plug the idea right now. There’s Delilah, and girlfriends, and the Christian basketball stars …
Absolutely. Still I do think there’s a contemporary relevance. “‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.” It’s so moving to me, the fact that human beings, these talking apes, we actually say “hello.”
And here’s this professor, giving the standard advice, dialogue blah blah blah … and it was the student who stopped her, with great eloquence. And to me he’s fascinating. You share my quandaries, and how dare you pretend otherwise? He’s that sniveling insider. See, these are nebbishes, kind of weaselly, though Bill Murray cashes in on that — but nobody’s Gary Cooper. But Woody Allen has a wonderful quip, something like, “We’re all losers, by the fact that we’re born and we die and we’re human and we’re lost. Why isn’t it That Thing You Do With Your Mouth? It’s about the demolition of the self. We always get each other wrong, and what do we do with that? Whereas your questions mentioned Epic of Gilgamesh, and I don’t think I’ve read Gilgamesh. That’s one answer anyway, and also I think about this time I gave a reading and Charles Johnson was there. Thereafter, he has turned to more intimate and discomfiting material, in particular the stutter he struggled with as a child. Uh-huh. For example: One early entry offers “Advice From My Dad,” and another looks at “Motherhood.” While neither parent was the destructive sort encountered in ordinary memoirs, Shields’s reminiscences draw out unsettling aspects. And I guess when it comes to men, the American masculine, I find still more losers and lean even harder. I hear it in everything we say, or try to say, amid the utter strangeness of other people. Exactly. I do think of Trump, and how little he thinks of everyone who’s not him. Anyway I think that in those longer, anchoring essays, the book worries about a really serious concern. Yes, and you and Johnson — two very different sensibilities. But wasn’t that Cooper in High Noon? To them I say, “I know you, Dear Reader. It’s Montaigne who said, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”
So that’s the project? You know I read Kundera when I was in Iowa, starting in the late ’70s. And I had a question about your fiction, about the way this book references the early fiction. She’s the straw man. John, yes, but I want to say that my mom’s not the only woman in the book. We’re all Bozos on this bus, you know? Exploring our discomfort? David, he won the Oscar. Recent books demonstrate, often with impish delight, how humanity dwells in misunderstanding. It bumps along a corridor full of caskets. About the way a person expresses sympathy with just a tilt of the head. [Laughs.] Hardly.   [Laughs.] I imagine he’s got some dirt on Cooper. But why not? I hope it speaks to the way we get stronger. See, again, radically different sensibilities. Maybe I’ll make it my mission to get them reissued. To put it another way, part of my work is this old-fashioned ode to the miracle of language. Devil’s advocate. So too, another title crows “Heaven is a Playground,” and the next admits “Life is Not a Playground.” The bittersweet taste lingers as the subject turns to the larger culture. The notes go on and on. Yes, and either way, so much for the hero. Do you know it? That’s especially true in Unbearable Lightness and Laughter and Forgetting. You yourself claimed his best work wrestles with the tormented history of Prague …
I see. Yes, and it ends up at “complexified equilibrium.” That’s such a beautiful thing. So I made a joke, you know, “Charles, if I revealed the actual size of my penis, I’d have way too many groupies!” And people laughed, and Charles made a joke … but the point remains, he was uncomfortable, and that’s where my interest lies. The lofty critic. And I think of … You know there’s an anecdote about Cooper in one of my favorite books ever, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. In college days, according to Other People, his father objected: “Why not just something simple?” Dad, dream on. For me, Rousseau’s Confessions, just the opening line: “I feel my own heart, and therefore I know other men…” He locates all knowing in self-knowing, which sounds straight out of Other People. That’s … Okay, obviously, my first response would have to be that Other People doesn’t pretend to speak for an historical cataclysm, like The Rings of Saturn. He’s open to … to other people. [Laughs.] Look, for almost all the generations of men before ours, it was essential, for instance, to know how to kill an animal. And I’m playing up the difference. They’re both like “‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.” That’s … it’s a great title, even. Fascinating. All of which is a different solution from Kundera’s, because he still retains a vestigial limb of fiction, even if he no longer believes in it. Like, what’s that John Barth says about plot? For the individual and for the society, there’s never any dramatic arc, there’s only the fall. Okay, now I’ve got to turn that around   —
Uh-oh! But afterward, Charles just exploded: “Why would you say that?”
I mean, it made him so uncomfortable —
Almost asking you to repeat it! Well, let me start with the meditation on Bill Murray. In the essay, I discover what this signifies, how the man’s incapable of seeing anyone else’s perspective. That famous definition? I can’t help but think of a certain Woody Allen line —
It’s not far from Woody Allen to Bill Murray. For a while he found the world of interest, and then he kind of pretended to graduate beyond it. He’s a sham. But it holds together as this very serious journey, both a European death march and the author’s approach to his own mortality. It’s a parable. Let’s grant that. Either way, whatever they did in the editing, making Cooper look heroic, in fact it was the product of his woundedness. Exactly. And that’s basically what the book is about! Well, we’re the same generation —
Are we? To make the weapon, keep it handy, use it skillfully. He entered the purely philosophical realm, and I think it’s instructive. It’s all play. The one on your mother, early on. Wow, it’s weird you bring that up. Yes, meaning-seeking! In Kundera, they’re always not getting each other and yet falling into bed. If that makes sense? DAVID SHIELDS: Yeah … The ending has a kind of momentum. There’s also a contemporary echo. That’s what makes The Rings of Saturn so exciting. A good defense, David, and I think I’ve got another. Those two books are crucial to me. A cautionary tale. I’ve got to point out a crucial distinction. ‘Hello’ is a fucking miracle.”
[Domini laughs.]
Like, that’s my whole work! I mean I go to lots of basketball games in Black Planet, I go to all kinds of pop culture in Remote, I read a million books in Reality Hunger. He lost touch with his originating material, back in Prague. But you and I, we wouldn’t have a clue. Only Shields’s 1984 debut, the novel Heroes, might be termed simple. A relevance to the recent election?   Your father was a guerilla fighter? I mean one of your questions [concerning   Shields’s identifying with various sports figures and celebrities] talks about a hall of mirrors — but you being John Domini, you’re lost in your own hall of mirrors; one with a trampoline floor. In the fiction, the incident contributes to the coming of age, but in Other People it’s presented in full embarrassing reality. The bow of art comes from the woundedness of humanity, and if the book has larger value, it’s that. To embody a hateful masculinity? This book, it’s chock-full of research. Instead, the work became … and you know I never tire of Kundera but, my God, books like Slowness. It’s truly weird, because I just reviewed a new book on that movie. The question could hardly be more profound, especially now. Butley, for one. I mean, what the fuck? I’m not saying this just because we have to now. But what Gray reveals is, the real problem was that Cooper had the piles! It’s not genocide, no, but it’s totally relevant to Trump. I’d suggest that this is a serious book on manhood in contemporary America. One thinks of the classic definition for storytelling, that it’s a meaning-seeking activity. Then basically I realized I could move away from fiction and over to essay, reflection, collage, call it what you will, after I learned from Kundera how the parts that seemed most alive were the most meditative. I hope I get at the paradox in a figure like Charles Barkley, who to me is an interesting loser. How there’s always a space between us, and how that space is essentially erotic. It’s become this iconic American cowboy walk, when in fact it was just a guy trying to stumble through the day. Adam Sandler, a new kind of self-loathing Jew. You’ve got more hair. I just love that. Or Reality Hunger or Roger Angell or Gilgamesh? Then there’s the women’s movement, which turns up in the book. His international sensation Reality Hunger (2010) was largely culled from the work of other authors, and championed how “language is most efficiently used where it is […] most efficiently misused.”
Shields prefers interviews face to face (he helps with edits thereafter), so before we got together I sent along a few discussion prompts. Oh! How so? She told the students, “Some conversation is so banal, it never deserves to be dialogue.” And this one kid pushed back so beautifully. I keep asking, “Why isn’t it another book?”
Exactly. But I’ve had to realize, that’s not where I go for my equilibrium and disequilibrium. I can compare the translations. I have to ask — why do that? Like that riff on kitsch in Unbearable Lightness, basically I learned to direct my own narrative vectors that same way. But my own father, over in southern Italy, what he did to survive as a guerilla … I wouldn’t have had a clue. He’s a highly successful actor, but because of the way his face comes together or something, he’s the very embodiment of everything America hates. Because I hate critics who use writers as a platform on which they strike a pose, morally superior. God, Unbearable Lightness and Laughter and Forgetting, I reread and reread. Think of Montaigne, who in the 16th century wrote quite directly about his own anatomy, including his own vexed relationship to his penis. And it says Cooper had a bad back. How dare you pretend that your penis is less boring than mine?”
I think I’m working for a more honest reader, and I hope I’m making them feel less freakish. Exactly. But that’s a key book for me. Not at all, no. So in the film, he has this odd walk, kind of a hitch in his walk, and they made it look heroic. MARCH 29, 2017

FOR AN INTRODUCTION to David Shields, I might just hand you Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Philip Roth, American Pastoral. And that’s my defense, ultimately. Or the sports clichés? There was a wonderful line — the writer Fiona Maazel was teaching dialogue. Well, it’s certainly a busy space. The point is, I’m hugely interested in loserdom as philosophical winnerdom. Barkley never quite grabbed the brass ring, he’s not Michael Jordan, and to me Jordan isn’t interesting. You know that as a kid I had a bad stutter, and I’ve written about it at length … and in this book, the problem’s even in the title. Whereas what I’ve done, leaving story behind, is foreground the meaning-seeking. His criticism is collected in The Sea-God’s Herb. I’d suggest that examining a man like Bill Murray, or Howard Cosell for God’s sake —
How interesting. Still, it wound up a portrait of the American man who realizes he’s lucky, very lucky, and yet he isn’t Trump. I use one case in particular …
In particular, the essay that cites the real-life source for something in Handbook for Drowning. Sure. You know I started with relatively traditional material. The playwright, I know. Now, Gary Cooper, he’s Hollywood. Wonderful stuff, “this terribly significant business of other people,” which Roth then goes on to call “ludicrous.” I mean, think of how you and I got the day of our interview wrong! Revised and arranged, however, they read like a memoir. So I was giving a reading from The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead, and Charles was in the audience. John, for me all your questions — and this is actually sort of fascinating — all your questions refuse to engage with the book as it is. It’s basically serious, just like my book. Whereas I feel his earlier books are about, you know, Other People: Takes & Mistakes. That’s at least half the reason that fiction lost its hold on my imagination. I mean, while Other People is not overtly about, say, the Holocaust, it’s serious in that communication is a both a comedy and a tragedy, and bottomless either way. Now, the book is full of stuff about mortality and my own body, and at one point — you know, because it tends to get a laugh and it’s interesting — at one point I reveal the length of my erect penis. And maybe it’s particularly American and masculine, but I think I’m saying that the only way to get stronger is to be ruthlessly honest about your own woundedness. They’re a tremendous influence on the way I think about writing. A shame, you know, because more than anyone, Kundera taught me how to stand out as a writer. Then as Shields and I sat down, he told me he intended to “push back.” I must say, I’m glad he did. Was I wrong again? Shields begins, “We just need to go out there and take care of business.” He concludes:]
“You’ve got to love these fans. But if so, yours is in a far lighter vein. You’re saying Sebald is walking over the bones of the slaughtered — but where’s the slaughter here? A brief reflection on Seattle, where Shields has lived for decades, claims the city’s “ruling ethos is […] forlorn apology.” A lengthy meditation on Bill Murray argues that the actor relies above all on “ironic distance.”
The same distance has always defined Shields’s vision. And the really interesting question is, what would that do to his soul? ¤
JOHN DOMINI: Let’s start with one of the stranger pieces in Other People, that string of sports clichés. Those two bounce off each other, and reading one now, it makes me think of a recent piece in Bookforum. But if a pretty Bible-thumping girl is a killer on the court, where’s that leave the men? Interesting, I mean really. Also I think of Rousseau, his wonderful opening … Have you read the Confessions? It’s the drama of the living self. You can either take that bafflement and detest people for it, which means be Trumpian, finding other people hellish because they’re not you, or you can get eroticized and galvanized by the staggering difference of the eight billion people on the planet. And this book of mine … I’d be hard-pressed to find lots of political implications. To exercise my imagination, I go to the essay, which replaces the plot of two characters beating on each other with a single person beating on himself. A different version — I mean, this could be straight out of Other People. Hence my book, trying to express and explore how we live through other people and vice versa. Whether the subject is my own stuttering, whether it’s Adam Sandler’s self-loathing or Bill Murray’s crushing ennui … whatever, it’s always a wound, and that’s what makes people a fucking miracle. That’s what I find most moving. [Reads a page of “Words Can’t Begin to Describe What I’m Feeling,” composed entirely in the dead language of sports. [Laughs; either Shields misread my email, or I his.]
People are always ships passing in the night. Except in my way. The antithesis of Gary Cooper. Yes, because we’re all Bozos on this bus. I loved them so much, I think it’s instructive what’s happened to his work afterward — I think what Kundera lost, it’s relevant to our conversation. You yourself pointed out, in one of your questions, how Other People: Takes & Mistakes has a more of a valedictory sound than Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Like think how much of it worries whether human beings can communicate at all. He said, “You’ve got to be kidding. Like, in Other People, the last incident shows me digging up all the bad reviews I’ve ever gotten …
They practically have the final word. He also fascinates me as a career, because he once had something to write about, something with which all his work attempted to engage, but then he dropped it to become this professional Parisian quasi-intellectual. To say the least! And what I hate most is when they pretend to be only strong and right — only Trump, you know? My model was the text he co-wrote with his former student Caleb Powell, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel (2015), in which the younger man always plays Devil’s advocate. And once that you get that, the book just explodes. I know I’m going to ruin the anecdote. Some critics have said that’s my primary subject or whatever, and I hope such contradictions get explored in Other People. Yes, and you, it’s right here in Other People, you had ancestors who suffered pogroms. In him too, misunderstanding is always eroticized, though more overtly. [Waves Other People.]   I could make the same argument using Kundera. Il Duce! Why isn’t this Dead Languages? Basically, I use a different vestigial limb. Each of its 70 or so items stands self-contained, whether essay or collage, and most saw print before. He’s never since returned to fiction, while digging ever deeper into the floundering distractedness of most discourse. Of course. Well, Maazel set it up. But only now are we admitting that we are all losers.”
[Pause.]
It’s probably funnier the way he said it. But, and this is what I love, even so we communicate. They’re immersed in his ego and never in conversation with anything else. I get that, yes, but if we’re talking about the “Bumper Stickers” piece? That’s him, Simon Gray, and his diaries are brilliant. Exactly. You’ve got to love this game.”
[Laughs.]
Those are fun, aren’t they? Wow. I believe that’s one of your defenses. That’s maybe a little sentimental. Like for Kundera to make sense of the world, he needs a story. Bob Balaban …
How many movies catch Balaban with his pants down? The book examines of the quandary of American manhood, at this laughably comfortable hour of our existence. Because what makes people redeemable is precisely the opposite, the way they’re always poking each other’s wounds, getting each other wrong, and still somehow they say hello. It makes me think of the author who most came to mind as I was reading, namely, Milan Kundera. You make me think of the contradictions in American culture. Like think of the essay about what researchers call lateral head flexion. Yes, but in both, underlying it all is the way people always get each other wrong, as per my epigraph. Nobody’s Gilgamesh, no way. You know Johnson, his novel Middle Passage? The book is full of data like that, and I’m just average, very average. It’s not about geopolitics. Reading this book, you’re bouncing along a hall of mirrors on your own aesthetic trampoline. Yes, and among those people are the dead and tortured of Prague, over a tortured 20th century. [Laughs.] But it’s not that funny!