‘That Thing You Do With Your Mouth’: ‘Reality Hunger’ Brand David Shields as Ventriloquist Porn Director

shieldscoverDavid Shields is a literary brand in need of devaluation. His last name is not a surname; it’s the predicate in a sentence where the indirect object is “quality,” and the direct object is anyone who publishes with him. By this I mean that Shields’ famed “reality hunger” has given way to a kind of base gluttony that masks a deeper need to see his name stamped twice-yearly on books with literary themes. This, in effect, turns his “essays” into documentaries wherein Shields becomes an auteur-documentarian who cobbles, edits, guides, but never produces any worthwhile literary work.

Earlier this year, Shields shielded his own friend from literary quality when he published I Think You’re Totally Wrong, a “deconstruction of the Q&A format” that pits Shields against Caleb Powell in a buddy comedy so transparently “cinematic” that 1. the pair watches buddy comedies in a sad attempt to induce meta-narrative charm and 2. James Franco has decided to make it into a movie, presumably because he operates in a zone of pure superfluity.

Only months before, Shields subjected the legacy of J.D. Salinger to his “method,” this time producing an oral history (Salinger) of the author’s final 55 years, a quotation patchwork that on every page reveals its Pinocchio-like desire to become a real biography. Or at least a film. It turns out that the book was a stunt tie-in to a documentary directed by its co-author, Shane Salerno. All of Shields’ books, in fact, should be seen as merchandise released in advance of terrible movies. And, accordingly, they should be sold at Burger King.

True to bankrupt form, Shields’ new book, That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, is another readymade, quasi-cinematic object, only now Shields is cribbing from Sex, Lies, and Videotape instead of The Trip (or Salinger). This time, the subject is sex, or one’s sexual history, and Shields’ unfortunate partner is his “cousin once removed,” an actress disguised under the name Samantha Matthews, who lives in Barcelona with her two children.

The book’s construction is simple: “Over 18 months — via email, text, Skype, and FaceTime,” Shield writes in the introduction, “I asked her increasingly difficult questions and she emailed back her increasingly revelatory answers.” I’ll add now that “Samantha”  has lived a fairly open sexual life – albeit not one without particular psychosexual hang-ups — and even once worked as a voice-over actress for porn. And she was also the victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by her father’s children from another marriage, two grown men 12 and 13 years older than her.

So the book sets out to be an excavation of personal trauma, a “reality” object that shows how “real people” deal with “real life.” Of course, analytically speaking, one safe way of dealing with trauma is by talking about it, and talking soon reveals itself to be the book’s actual theme. (Get it? It’s That Thing You Do With Your Mouth.) Unfortunately, Shields — who could have just been listed as the book’s editor — confuses “increasingly revealing” for form, and the book becomes, in spite of its subject’s worthy life, a monotonous thing.

The problem here is that Shields leaves it all up to the dispositif, the apparatus, the set-up, and the fallout. TTYDWYM becomes a Rube Goldberg machine when its subject matter — the frank sexual confessions and revelations of an interesting woman — deserves the carefulness and care of literary editing. To imagine a possible cinematic equivalent, just think of a woman obscured by cheap, nightly news-style camouflage — voice modulator, blurred head — talking for two hours about her sexual history. She occasionally addresses the man behind the camera, and she says things like this:

We used every sex toy ever made. He tied me up, shaved himself and me, handcuffed me, threw me around, upside down, had me in positions I didn’t know were even possible. We didn’t make love. It was always dirty. He fucked me, sometimes looking me in the eyes, or on other days putting a pillow over my head a couple minutes before he came. That was borderline weird/scary (Oooh, did I actually feel a boundary there?) He was dangerous and perverse. Maybe it opened up that little-girl-doing-something-naughty side of me…

Sadly, as the reader can probably tell, the book never becomes an “intervention against the standard trauma-recovery narrative”; instead, it joyrides along the bumpy road of its speaker’s revelations, whether traumatic or erotic, in hopes of producing the thrill of identification. (“I see this in myself,” it wants the reader to say.) This is, again, the fault of Shields, who, hiding behind the text the way a porn director hides behind his camera, is less perverted — although the book’s built-in incest taboo (he’s her cousin) and porn transcriptions are meant to provoke critics — than lazy.

In an excellent hit piece (“The Lives of Others,”), the writer J. W. McCormack points out that David Shields confuses hearing himself in other people with residing, for at least a moment, in the alien. This is still true in the case of That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, even if Shields appears to have entered a phase where he is letting others talk. Of course, he hasn’t. His name is still on the book. He’s still the author, the auteur, the documentarian, the ventriloquist. Or just the brand. The next time David Shields Presents, let’s all choose a different movie.