Photo courtesy Rabbit Bandini Productions
Capital punishment. Bungee jumping. Cormac McCarthy. Waterboarding. Jackson Pollock. “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Abortion. Rupert Murdoch. The Seattle Mariners. The war in Iraq. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Disneyland. Balding.
These are just few of the subjects David Shields and Caleb Powell cover in their new book, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel.” Or, rather, it’s what they covered in 2011 when the two friends — Shields, a bestselling author of 16 books who teaches at the University of Washington, and Powell, a world-traveler-turned-stay-at-home dad who has published stories in a few literary magazines — headed to a cabin in the mountains of Washington State to verbally joust for four days.
The transcript of those conversations is the basis for the book — and the inspiration for a James Franco-directed film, starring Shields and Powell, scheduled for release later this year. “We can’t faux-argue like Siskel and Ebert,” Powell says as they discuss ground rules. “It’s staged, but it can’t be fake.”
“It’s an ancient form,” Shields says later. “Two white guys bullshitting… you can go all the way back to Plato’s dialogues with Socrates.”
A better analogy might be Louis Malle’s 1981 film, “My Dinner With Andre,” in which the playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and director/writer/actor Andre Gregory, playing somewhat caricaturized versions of themselves, conduct an existential and highly-referential conversation for two hours at a posh Manhattan restaurant.
Shields and Powell watch “Andre” in the “DAY 2” chapter of “Totally Wrong,” and offer color commentary as the film rolls. “Acch. So beautiful. I love this so much,” Shields gushes, at one point. A moment later, he says, “The specter of the Holocaust haunts the film. It’s very intentional. Andre returns to it over and over again. He was born in France in 1934. Both of them are completely assimilated Jews.”
Powell and Shields are assimilated Jews, too, who toss Judaism on the table — along with marriage, their kids, their parents, politics, past traumas, and seemingly every book they’ve ever read — for dissection. Powell says he’s fascinated with Judaism, but considers himself “an Einsteinian agnostic” who is “universally disrespectful of religion.” Shields says, “I’m not really that Jewish,” but he later merrily quotes Milton Berle (“Jews don’t drink. It interferes with our suffering”) and his mother’s Yiddish-inflected reminder to do his household chores (“Just because you’re a ‘writer’ doesn’t mean you have to be a schlemiel”).
Shields calls the book a literary “experiment,” and your view of its success likely depends on whether you enjoy sentences like, “That’s an incredibly banal and Maoist view of what constitutes suffering,” as Shields tells Powell at one point. It also depends on your tolerance for raw, unflinching honesty. Seemingly no subject is taboo here: not Shields and Powell’s respective salaries; not Powell’s wife’s miscarriage; not Shields’s decision to only have one child; not Powell’s sexual encounter with a transvestite in Western Samoa; not even Shields’s chilly relationship with his sister, which he partially attributes to the fact that “She… really resents that I’ve written about our family.” (It’s hard to imagine publishing that tidbit will help the situation.)
As-raw-as-possible honesty is the aim of Shields work, he explains. “To me, one way that human beings can become better, or at least that art can serve people, is if the writer or the artist shows how flawed he or she actually is,” he says. “Basically, the royal road to salvation, for me, lies through an artist saying very uncompromising things about himself. And through reading that relentless investigation, the reader will understand something surprising about himself.”
If readers have a problem with that, well, as Shields tells Powell during one heated exchange, “You don’t have a clue how to read my work.”