The text is what’s crucial. Not just the bulk of this book, which consists of actress Samantha Matthews recounting stories of her past, her family, her relationships, and her work; not the introduction either, in which David Shields (Matthews’s cousin) explains the impetus for the project. From the cover onwards, the reader is enveloped in criss-crossing and overlapping words: the title, That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, overlaid with the book’s subtitle, The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews as told to David Shields. And while both authors make their presence felt, the overall collaboration is a largely seamless one, at times dizzying and heady, and at others gut-wrenching in the events it describes. It’s a short book, but its emotional force is considerable.
"I initially thought we’d end up with an amusing novella about America and Europe and Daisy Miller, updated to the twenty-first century," Shields writes in his introduction. There, he sets out the rough outlines of Matthews's life: she's an American actress living in Spain who occasionally works "dubbing Italian porn films into English." (She’s also writing under a pseudonym.) The two of them exchanged dialogues through a series of mediums. An edited version -- the transcript, Shields writes, came to around 700 pages -- became the book in question. And, by and large, it works: occasionally, Shields will leave in reminders that these are conversations: Matthews alluding to the conditions under which she’s speaking, for instance, or thanking Shields for a book. There are also a handful of excerpts from the aforementioned dubbing sessions, which sit somewhat awkwardly beside the more heartfelt and intimate sections of Matthews’s memories.
Much like Heidi Julavits’s recent The Folded Clock, Matthews’s narrative appears at first to be random in its structure. Events and musings from across her life sit beside each other; long memories about aphorisms. But a structure begins to emerge: an event alluded to very early on is given much more context halfway through the book, revealing horrific acts inflicting trauma and an epically-damaged familial dynamic overlapping with Matthews’s own home life.
Elsewhere, Matthews describes a series of relationships across her life, each with their own levels of complexity and their own, sometimes fraught, dynamics. There are awkward meetings, questions of sexuality, and different manifestations of knowledge. Even as she reveals deeply intimate aspects of her life, Matthews’s recollections seem highly controlled: this is her life, on her terms; these are her secrets, but they may not be all of them.
As far as the book’s overall structure goes, the slow build and pacing make for a rewarding payoff. There are also smaller moments that can leave the reader feeling delighted or horrified. Her account of a Seattle building in which she worked abruptly turns unsettling when she recounts the hobby of one of the tenants: "He worked in the morgue, would go and collect the dead bodies from crime scenes, and kept a collection of the girls’ ID cards. Shiver."
And Matthews’s ability to turn a phrase -- or recount a memorable phrase turned by another -- leads to some of the book’s most charming sections. Here she is, recounting her frustrations with her partner: "He keeps me at arm’s length, keeps the feral girl down. He’s rationing. I’m in the sexual breadline." When recounting a night of drunken excess, she notes that "as the night progresses, I act more and more like a cult leader." And in the book's second half, we learn the origins of its title: "...William isn’t much of a talker, either. He calls talking 'that thing you do with your mouth.'"
The act of conversation -- as actor, as family member, as lover -- suffuses this book. And the fact that it itself emerged from conversations is no accident. The way that it's told, which could be called unconventional or could be said to hearken back to the oral tradition of storytelling with equal accuracy, thoroughly envelopes the reader. Though this book isn’t the 700-page juggernaut that the unedited transcripts of Shields and Matthews in conversation could have produced, it feels complete, encompassing the fullness of several decades of its author’s life.