THE LATEST INTERVIEW
By David Shields
Is it bad form to start a book review with a question? Not if the book is David Shields’ “The Very Last Interview,” an entertaining compilation of hundreds of short, random-looking questions that don’t come with answers. From the first page (“Ready to roll?”) to the last (“What do you absolutely not want to write?”), Shields maintains a playful and absurdist tone that pokes fun at the conventional Q. and A., a staple journalism that makes way for the Q. minus the a.
The book lacks an introduction and the only clue to the author’s intentions is on the back cover in a short description from the publisher. We learn that Shields, who has apparently given many interviews over the course of his 40-year writing career, decided to systematically collect the questions asked of him and then delete them. Initially, he amassed 2,700, which I think is an achievement, even if the only comparison might be those infamous SAT guides bulging with over a thousand practice questions.
A devoted postmodernist and mix master, Shields seems eager to create new literary genres, or at least sabotage the old ones. His controversial 2010 book, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” is composed largely of material plucked from other authors. Shields seemed to be saying that recycling is a necessary artistic gesture, one that he found excitingly authentic alongside the deliberate deceptions of fiction.
In his latest attempt, Shields’ target is an easier one: the media interview. In 1969, when Andy Warhol founded his magazine Interview, he helped create a culture in which the ancient activity of questioning – the basis of the Talmudic approach to knowledge acquisition, as well as the much-vaunted Socratic method – was reduced to a curious investigation into the private lives of celebrities. That is not to denigrate the form of the interview, a neutral entity that can be imbued with any degree of triviality or depth. A source of inspired entertainment (hello, Johnny Carson), interviews have also been a vehicle for essential truth-telling, as in the oral history books of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
The questions in Shields’ book have their own distinct personality. Granted, some are nominally informative, like “How many agents have you had?” or “Do you know what ‘JSTOR’ stands for?” But many others are bursting with aggressive humor. “Can you please name 11 prominent contemporary writers whose work you hate?” “Do you crave a MacArthur fellowship as a confirmation of your existence?”
The spiky tone sometimes escalates into bullying. “Is yours a failed life?” “Has your whole life been a bit of a non-starter?” Or, “If your books aren’t really selling anymore—which more or less means you don’t have a readership—why are you still writing them?”
At first it seems that Shields wants to make an indictment against the media with his book. While he doesn’t call journalists by name, many of his questions evoke the barking of a certain type of passive-aggressive interviewer, alternately submissive and cutting, who envies the achievements of his famous subjects but craves their company to end. to his loneliness.
But what if Shields made up the questions he supposedly took from previous interviews? The more you read, the more convinced you will be of that possibility. (The publisher’s description on the cover says the questions have been “rewritten and edited and remixed” in the interest of “finding a continuous line”.) Does that change his book into a different life form? A fictional work? A memoir? An imitation of Padgett Powell’s question-based novel, “The Interrogative Mood”?
Shields wants to blur artistic boundaries, a noble postmodernist endeavor, but “The Very Last Interview” only manages to blur its point. Despite the broad cultural exploration promised in the jacket copy, Shields has produced a narrow, nihilistic examination of the vicissitudes of his own career. Preoccupied with his professional disappointments, he ignores the sublime consolation of art. I have a question for him. Can you please think bigger next time?