Two dudes. A mountain cabin. Fridge full of beer. Wide open schedule. Plus one audio recorder.
The result, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong,” is a book-length transcript capturing four days of conversations between two consummate talkers: academic novelist/essayist David Shields, and his former student, Caleb Powell, whose fortunes turned from aspiring novelist to stay-at-home dad.
Their extended verbal jam session is one of the most spontaneous literary artifacts since Jack Kerouac unloosed “On the Road” during an amphetamine bender.
The point of all this high-octane repartee is to celebrate talking for its own sake, here perfected by a duo of hip West Coast literati who prize verbal judo as a timeless mode of discourse.
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Shields: Obviously, you can go all the way back to Plato’s dialogues with Socrates. It’s an ancient form.
The weekend encounter quickly exposes a philosophical rift between Shields’ embrace of art as secular religion, and Powell’s falling away from that rarefied world.
Powell: Today’s artists too often adopt the same liberal ideologies. I’m disillusioned with the left. Too often, I just find them absolutist and delusional.
In this art-versus-life dichotomy, Powell deems it “monstrous” that Shields snubbed his wife’s desire to have a second child in order to focus his energies on writing. For Shields, however, art is a sacred calling.
Shields: Somehow we wind up portraying you as a man of vast experience and me as someone locked away in a nunnery, but – and this is really sad to have to say – but I’ve lived a full life. I’ve married, raised a child, traveled, taught, stuttered.
Powell is a 40-something erstwhile musician, world traveler and ESL teacher who has never made more than $22,000 in a year. A father of three, Powell resists playing a subordinate role to Shields, and regards his former teacher with a mixture of respect and skepticism.
Shields is an academic superstar whose work has been translated into 20 languages; he pulls down as much as $200,000 a year from teaching, lecturing and writing. Shields regards Powell, the former understudy and failed artist, an ideal sparring partner.
Shields: This may be self-glorifying on my part, but do you feel any envy toward me and my work?
Powell: I’m a nobody. I’ve got nothing. I’d like to take the high road, though, and say that I don’t. How am I diminished by the success of others?
Shields and Powell cover an archive’s worth of material here: hiking, beer, sports, movies, chess, kids, parents, marriage, politics, racism, ethics, sex, literature. Every life experience is processed through the prism of literature.
Shields: My father was severely manic-depressive, in and out of mental hospitals his entire life. ... When he was around me, he was always incredibly competitive and reluctant to offer praise of any kind. When he was with other people, he talked endlessly about me, apparently. I think of him as a Zen genius in reverse: wherever he was, he wasn’t.
Their instant recall of literary allusions and quotations is stupefying, sometimes even to themselves.
Shields: Who are you quoting?
Yet for all its cleverness, the dialogue at times hints at the hermetic culture of the college writing workshop.
Powell: What do you think of Cormac McCarthy?
Shields: To me, he seems to be a complex and nihilistic version of The Tao of Pooh. His writing, from what I can tell, assumes the reader has never before confronted existential matters.
The non-stop riffing is hugely entertaining, but in the crash-and-burn pattern of intense friendships. After a while, this kind of gamesmanship can leave you too drained to read anything more demanding than “The Tao of Pooh.”
I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel
David Shields and Caleb Powell
Knopf, 272 pages