David Shields and I like to argue. Sort of. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about the oh-so-important aesthetic issues that make up the rich tapestry of our intellectual lives, only to find—at the key moments of disagreement—that you are arguing about either the same thing you argued about in the past, or, more accurately, arguing about different things from the other person, you’ll be close to the relationship Shields and I have developed over time. We’ve talked about How Literature Saved My Life and about War is Beautiful, and about I Think You’re Totally Wrong.
When conducting this interview in fact—during a back-and-forth over email—Shields refused to answer a question that we have already discussed at least obliquely in a 6000-word “Pull Any String of the Spider Web and the Whole Thing Vibrates: An Argument/Conversation” in the AWP Writers’ Chronicle; there, we covered, exhaustively, the topics of genius and the romantic tradition, collage, memoir, Proust, and our basic (and oversimplified, here) disagreement between words-as-plastic (me) and words-as-narrative (Shields). Shields responded to me with a short reply ending this way: “I like books that conduct a poetic argument. You don’t. That’s nice.” I replied. He replied. We then continued the interview.
That’s the crux, in a sense, of Shields impressive new work, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention (Thought Catalog), which uses collage tactics to explore an “American death wish”—it’s as much a wish from the author to the country as it is an examination of prophetic possibility. Collage for Shields, and for me, is a productive methodology: the mixing of texts from different sources into new combinations. Shields uses collage as a series of intertwining and recursive replies. He’s used collage most prominently in the excellent Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but also through a series of excellent other books applying the concept. He’s committed to the form as a way around and through the Gordian Knot: How do you write about Trump in the great swirl of endlessly repeating think pieces? You don’t “write,” per se, you remix.
What follows is an edited and remixed transcript of the our most recent conversation about the excellent and vital Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump.
— Davis Schneiderman
Schneiderman: This book’s working title was Journal of the Plague Year. Isn’t a year optimistic? Aren’t we in a state of seemingly perpetual plague?
Shields: The book had been called Journal of the Plague Year, after the Defoe title—a novel that pretends to be real, etc., setting the template for the next centuries. This book is now called Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, which might be equally debatable. An intervention in what sense? Does Trump hate himself? Many senses. Yes.
Schneiderman: The Defoe “I found the manuscript in a trunk” gambit is a classic, and this, too, is a found text in a sense. Talk about how Nobody is organized? You’re in the land of wild pastiche, but what structural logic, or not, did you bring to the process? How did you manage to cull what is likely to be an endless news feed into this text, in this order?
Shields: We talked about this last time: My devotion to the idea that collage is not a form for the compositionally disabled, that collage is an evolution beyond narrative, that collage—at its best—is organized to within an inch of its life. I love Picasso's notion that a great painting comes together, just barely. I love the idea of a reader feeling an unmistakable momentum, some indefinable tug, but not being quite sure what that tug is. In this case, there is an argument that’s unfolding, and it goes something like this: Trump is wounded (obviously); here are some of the sources of his wounds; here is how he has tried to retire, bury, mask those wounds; here is how he has reanimated those wounds; here's how he has connected those wounds up to the ressentiment of the body politic; here's how much human beings love the promise and spectacle of apocalypse; and here's why finally apocalypse won't arrive (Trump's self-destructiveness is larger than his destructiveness). It's a detective story, and I can give away the ending: we have met the enemy and he is us.
Schneiderman: This is a topic—collage narrative or not—that has been endlessly experienced in its own rehashing. We’re way beyond postmodernism and post-irony. We’re somewhere levitating impossibly in a viscous soup. There’s no soup spoon. Just soup. How do we get out?
Shields: You and your perfect metaphors. The viscous soup sans spoon. Not even a soupcon of a spoon? Just as it was difficult to figure out how to stop the incoming data from running or ruining the argument (as per the above), so, too, it was, of course, the challenge to say something "new” that hasn't already been said through the topic’s massive recursion. I think the book is heavily about this very recursion. It's about what it feels like to live in this moment. A Christian lady on a right-wing talk radio show said, "There's this heaviness wherever you go." Exactly. The book is a weighing of that heaviness, a meteorological reading of Cloud Trump.
Schneiderman: Your answers thus far—all good and suitably Shieldsian—express an anxiety of sorts as to how the unmistakable momentum requires, in a book like this, an over-arching narrative trajectory to support itself. Are you confident Trump will self-destruct, or does the book represent your hopefulness? If this prophecy, performance, or both?
Shields: Not hearing anxiety (though happy to acknowledge I’m deaf to it); it’s simply how I work; it’s the aspect of bricolage that I’m interested in; very subtle interlacings. I’m quite certain he will self-destruct. He has been programmed for this moment all his life. The whole book makes that argument: at every possible level (familial, emotional, sexual, cultural, political, anti-spiritual), he has been dying to come unglued. We are nearly here.
Schneiderman: The anxiety is more an anxietized epiphenomenon—to enter into the process of intense processing, as you have done to produce this book—and to have the book point toward a hopefulness…that’s anxiety-producing in its commitment to momentum. You have to be sure, or sure enough, that the prediction of the book is more prophetic than problematic. We desperately need magical thinking, but we also have too much of it. Say more, if you can, about the Trumpian “death wish”? It’s clear that the text argues there is no other way out, but does Trump on some level know or want this? This ungluedness, this dyingness? Is he an active participant in his own downfall, or an incidental one?
Shields: Oh, I think he’s quite an active participant in it. That’s what the book argues. I have a lifelong obsession with self-destructiveness, masochism, self-penalizing, self-negating. I think it’s one of the big clues to human nature and human history. I see that in Trump in an almost self-parodically obvious way (e,g., not being able to pronounce “anonymous”). He wouldn’t be consciously aware of this, of course; he wouldn’t think, I want to become president in order to have the biggest possible stage on which to humiliate myself, but this is exactly what he has done and sought. It’s about as ancient and primitive and undeniable a story as there is.
Schneiderman: How did you choose and filter the material? There’s no end to what can go “into” a project like this—so how did you select and arrange? To what extent, if any, is randomness part of the process?
Shields: It’s a very strange process. About a year ago I sort of buckled myself into my seat and tried to get an enormous amount of info to wash over me: old episodes of the Howard Stern show, Apprentice episodes, dozens of books, constant media drip, etc., etc. I’ve been working this way since at least Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity—published more than twenty-years ago. There is randomness in that I might be watching MSNBC one night rather than Fox News, but I just wait for a little jolt to my system, some goose bump of a reaction to something said. I can listen to hours and hours and have no reaction, then some sideways look will galvanize me; it’s hard to quantify (“I know it when I see it”). Then once I have shot a lot of film—have hundreds upon hundreds of pages—I get rid of all the dross, I pour the material into horizontal and vertical patterns, and then try to arrange the material in a way that “builds.” I think you might find the way that I build stuff to be “overdetermined.” You want a more Acker-like or Burroughs-like feel, perhaps. Without some sort of building, though, it’s just the phone book, ain’t it? (Not to say I haven’t been deeply influenced by both of them; I just want a stronger guiding hand—Markson rather than Oulipo).
Schneiderman: I also, had a “phone book” for the internet in the early 1990s. You looked up a web address—yellow-page style—and then typed your way to a new world. Your description of method is actual very Burroughsian. He was an editor of his randomness, with more or less editorial intervention depending upon the different phases of his work. What do you mean by pouring the material into horizontal and vertical patterns? I’m curious about what this looks like on the page as a material process? Do you cut and paste text in somewhat randomly and see what sticks? I’ve worked with dreamtapes and typewriters and layered editing and cut-ups…and there doesn’t need to be a name for what you do, but, literally, what do you do to process the initial materials?
Shields: What is a dream tape, Davis? Do tell. Hmm, what do I do? Usually I start with a subject or metaphor that ramifies: “reality,” “race,” “celebrity,” “death,” “sex,” etc. Some huge subject about which I’m confused and obsessed. Then I just gather materials for as long as I’m interested—writing my own stuff, reading other people’s stuff, interviewing people, searching stuff out on the web, tv, radio, emailing people, gathering new vectors on the grid. At a certain point, I get bored. I find that I’m not learning anything new. Time to start organizing and reorganizing. First thing I do is that I get rid of anything that doesn’t surprise me or discomfit me. I want only stuff that jangles my nerves a bit (hope it jangles reader’s nerves, too, of course). The big challenge then is to figure out how to “cut” the material. The material is now down from maybe a thousand pages to a more manageable 200-300. Vertically means the material forms chapters, as, say, Eduardo Galeano does in The Book of Embraces: AAAA, BBBB, CCC, DDD, etc. Horizontally means the material forms more of a musical pattern: A E C D B B C A D E E F D C. I think of Markson’s This Is Not a Novel working that way. I literally take out highlighters and color different material different colors. I print it all out and use scissors and highlighters. It’s very musical and very painterly, by my standards. Couldn’t imagine working any other way. Massive waste of time and energy.
Schneiderman: A massive waste, but of course not a waste at all. The rhythmic quality to the work across the different vectors provides organizing structures that map onto traditional narrative strategies in very interesting ways. This is also Burroughsian, and even, as we’ve discussed before, Proustian. Dream tapes, as I have used them—particularly in my 2010 novel Drain—are recordings of dreams I would dictate/mumble into a mini-cassette recorder in the middle of the night, followed by playback and freeform transcription into a 1951 Remington, followed by retyping, recasting, and inserting into a word processing document. The multiple layers of filtering take the place, in a sense, of the vertical/horizontal matrices you use above (and which I have also used in different ways). The dream tape method is more surrealist than radically random, as it reaffirms a certain version of narrativity. I use this when I feel closer to some notion of “story,” which I try to extract from the depths. Often, I then cut and remix to put elements of that deep narrative into collage-style jeopardy. It’s also, of course, a massive waste of time and energy—which is precisely what makes it productive. Your work in Nobody, and process matters, is very effective: what is your favorite/s part of the text?
Shields: I like the epigraph an awful lot (Adam Curtis). I like the last three lines an awful lot: Comey, Ford Madox Ford, and Pogo.
Schneiderman: I think of you as the good (collage) soldier, and yes, the enemy is us.
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). The film adaptation of I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel was released by First Pond Entertainment in 2017. Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention has just been published. The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is forthcoming in February 2019. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Believer. His work has been translated into two dozen languages.
Davis Schneiderman is Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English at Lake Forest College. He is the author or editor of more than 10 books. His first story collection, there is no appropriate #emoji will be released in Fall 2019, and his recent novels BLANK, the plagiarized novel [SIC], and the ink-smeared novel INK.; along with the novel Drain, a cli-fi dystopia story from Northwestern University Press. He co-edited the collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game. He was a long-time contributor for The Huffington Post and has interviewed Sherry Turkle, John Waters, Regina Taylor, and David Shields—many times—among others.