David Shields.
Alfred A. Knopf.
New York, 1996
Hardcover (206 pages) - $22.00

Sheldon Robert Walcher

REMOTE, THE FOURTH BOOK by critically acclaimed fiction writer David Shields, is both brilliant and bizarre, hilarious and touching. Defying most attempts at genre classification, it exists simultaneously as autobiography, cultural analysis, film criticism, social documentary, and reportage in the wildest traditions of New Journalism. In fact, the question of precisely what this book is looms large enough that Shields attempts to explain the project in the Prologue: "This book is not concerned with the psychodynamics of the American nuclear family. It is neither a coming-of-age novel nor a love story. It is a self-portrait given over to a single subject and splintered into fifty-two pieces: I'm reading my life as if it were an allegory, an allegory about Remoteness, and finding evidence wherever I can."
This extended meditation on "Remoteness" includes such topics as the nature of Oprah Winfrey, the values communicated through car bumper stickers, the essence of high school popularity, the state of professional sports, and the character of sexual desire in postmodern America. Structurally, the "splintered pieces" of the book actually link up to form longer shards, not quite narrative strands, that resurface at odd intervals throughout, interspersed with photographs from Shields' childhood and publicity shots of famous celebrities. The effect is somewhat like channel surfing on late night cable TV, with some sections naturally segueing into the next, others coming as startling contrast to what has come before.
One such narrative shard is "Always," a witty collection of one-liners about the media: "A TV movie is always based upon a true story, always features actors and actresses who are more attractive than their real-life models, and is always less well structured than the true story on which it was based." Shields is even funnier when he rages against writers and critics: "The creative process is always depicted as an unfathomably mysterious, unbearably grueling endeavor, and writers are always depicted (always depict themselves) as beautiful losers stumbling around in the metaphysical night...If a growing-up novel is told in the first person, it is always-with or without cause for comparison-compared to Catcher in the Rye...When critics have absolutely nothing to say about writer X's sixth novel, they always say that it burnishes writer X's reputation...Forced by social circumstances to praise novels they haven't read, writers always say they are 'wonderfully evocative'...Writers who are most elegant on the subject of the death of the novel are always writers who were once mildly popular and now no longer read."
If "Always" explores the truth of our collective media lies, "Almost Famous," deals with our cultural mania for celebrity-dom. In one such section, Shields recounts the lengthy yet utterly forgettable career of Bob Balaban (Midnight Cowboy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, remarking that: "Like someone dead or very famous, Balaban is trapped in an absolutely unchangeable identity. In almost all of these movies he is extremely dislikable in precisely the same way: humorously over concerned with procedure, passive-aggressive to the point of self-parody, dogged, eunuchized, bloodless...Balaban almost always plays Jews: he's a scapegoat Christ suffering for our one irredeemable sin-we are not movie stars, either."
In Shields' own family, this desire for "greatness" takes the form of his father's life-long claim of being related to Joseph Shildkraut, the academy award winning actor who played Alfred Dreyfuss in The Life of Emile Zola. After meticulously recounting every story his father has ever told regarding his family's tenuous dealings with the Shildkrauts, Shields closes the section by asking: "Why do I care about being related to someone who-on the basis of my father's stories and The Diary of Ann Frank-appears to be a singularly unpleasant human being and painfully ham-fisted actor? Because as Sting says, 'In America, everybody is in show business...Everybody aspires to be famous.' Maybe I'm also related to Brooke Shields; towards the end of Endless Love, when she's crying in that dark New York hotel room, trying to say goodbye to David, and her hair is braided and rolled up in a bun, she does, it seems to me, especially in the mouth-and-chin area, look at least a little like the way I sometimes looked as a teenager."
Yet for all this sassy exploring of cultural myths, Remote maintains the intimacy of confession. Indeed, the artistic and moral core of the book is revealed in "Confessions," the sections Shields devotes to his kindred spirit Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "The origin of language is ambiguity of feeling," Shields writes. "Rousseau's commitment to language signifies his devotion to resolving certain ambiguities in his emotional life, but his decision to rely upon language to discover meaning only drives the paradoxes deeper." This idea-becoming "Remote" through precisely that activity conceived as key to understanding and connection-echoes throughout the book. One of the most personal examples of this comes in "Stuttering":
"In elementary school I started stuttering and so I kept a record-dozens of yellow, legal-sized pages-of Robin's 'Holy' outburst, his alliteration and assonance, his fast riffs in sharp contrast to the laconic Batman. Holy Homicide, Batman. Holy Hurricane, Batman. Holy Whatever, Batman. One day, oddly (characteristically, self-destructively), I sent my one and only copy of Robin's exclamations to the producers of Batman; I thought it would connect me in powerful, mysterious and irrevocable ways to the show I spent all week thinking about. I got back a letter thanking me for my interest, and an autographed photograph of the laconic Batman. I never watched or wanted to watch the show again. I stuttered much worse than usual for a few days, then returned to my usual rate of disfluency."
Language as a diversion from communication rather than a means to it is not a new theme in Shields' work; neither are experiments in form. His second novel, Dead Languages , portrays a life-long stutterer who lives with his domineering mother and manic-depressive father, unable to make them understand his secret dreams and fears. His third book, A Handbook for Drowning, tells the story of a young man struggling to come to terms with his family neuroses through a series of connected but non-chronologically linked stories. What's new about Remote is that Shields takes the form of autobiography-the making public of what is essentially private-and inverts it, brilliantly exposing the effects mass-market media have on all our relationships. If nothing else, then, Remote demonstrates that looking inward and looking outward are simultaneous processes in the postmodern age.
Yet by exploring how the most intimate aspects of people's lives get rendered for public consumption in a media culture, and how much his own childhood was devoted to consuming these images, a deeper issue emerges in Shields' work : the way desire in our society has been transformed from a search for personal connection to voyeurism. Thus Remote ultimately does describe the psychodynamics of the American nuclear family-"Remoteness is precisely what coming-of-age and falling in love are about. It is one of this book's many ironies that it is only in denying this as a goal that Shields is able to reveal the truth of it on the most personal level.
"Confess things to the camera. I don't know. Say things that you're most ashamed of, things that you don't want to remember, things that you don't want anybody to know. Maybe that way there'll be some truth," reads the epigraph to Remote (attributed to Jim McBride); Shields lives up to the advice, offering a bold, candid, and haunting book about the pain and ecstasy of growing up in a celebrity culture.

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