Looking backwards, forward, and all around: On Stephen Dixon

“I got a letter from George Plimpton saying, ‘not only are you not a novelist, but you’re probably not a short-story writer, either.’ That’s the exact quote.”

—Stephen Dixon (February 2007)

Stephen Dixon is one of the few American writers whose work feels truly sui generis. Though his prose shares the simple diction and spare physical description of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, Dixon is no minimalist. In fact, he achieves emotional power by using an excess of ideas, structures, reworked phrases, and sentences that seem to be still being revised as they appear on the page. In Salon, Roger Gathman described Dixon’s style as “writing that has come out in its undershirt.”

Dixon’s prose reminds me of no one else’s, it’s surprisingly difficult to emulate (I‘ve tried), and it’s hard to tell how much he has directly influenced the prose of subsequent writers, despite his being a creative writing professor at Johns Hopkins for over three decades. It’s worth noting that, in spite of his tenure, he’s emphatically not a writer of “campus fiction,” as is David Lodge. Almost none of Dixon’s short stories or novels take place in or have roots in the academy. As a subject, it seems not to interest him.

In fact, his fiction reminds me less of other writers than of Harvey Pekar’s long-running comic American Splendor. Of course, Pekar doesn’t draw his comics stories—he provides stick figures, layouts, dialogue, and structure to cartoonists, and oversees them as they flesh out his stuff—so he’s closer to Dixon than he might be if he were a draughtsman. Indeed, Dixon likes to draw, and has a scratchy, rough-hewn sense of graphic design. He often uses line-drawn self-portraits—charmingly amateurish—in lieu of jacket photos, and provides the illustrations for his own Man on Stage. The arresting covers of his I. (2002) and End of I. (2006) feature cover art by alternative cartoonist Daniel Clowes. The covers are essentially inversions of each other—portraits of a melancholy, alert Dixon—that pair the books more effectively than any other conceivable design.

Dixon and Pekar are thematically similar as well. Their stories are often thinly veiled autobiography. Dixon recasts his life in fiction; Pekar tells it straight but does so with a multitude of renditions of himself by other artists, so that we get different versions of “Harvey Pekar” in different comics. Which one’s the real one? Both writers recount the everyday struggles of working-class Jewish intellectual males in the big city. For Pekar, it’s Cleveland. For Dixon, it’s New York. Both of them obsess over trivial details, considering them as important in the long run as Big Events, and often privileging the quotidian over the exceptional (a child’s birth, a relative’s death, a marriage, a divorce) in terms of page length and authorial effort. They both began getting published in the mid-1970s, chronicling a country and a sense of masculinity during a period of great social instability for both.

Formally, they’re also related. Both Pekar and Dixon are stubbornly plainspoken stylists. They also tend to avoid climactic endings, or really endings at all, or even beginnings. Here’s how Dixon begins his latest novel, Meyer:

“So what are you going to do now?” she says. “I don’t know. Maybe bat out a poem. But I want to do something.” He kisses her, gets out of bed and puts on his glasses, picks his clothes off the floor and puts them on, sits at his worktable in the room and takes the cover off the typewriter. She gets out of bed and goes into the bathroom and turns on the shower.

Let’s see, he thinks: maybe something’s in there. He starts typing: “Now is the time, beloved, that I love you the most. Think of it,” and he subtracts eighty-two from a hundred and five, “twenty-three years, plus the three before we got married. Of all the women I’ve known, none has been anything like you. You are this, you are that. You do this to me, you do that. You, you, you.” “Forget it,” he says, and thinks what he’s written is even a bit insulting, and pulls the paper out of the typewriter and puts the cover back on.

We won’t find out “his” name (Meyer) until the next page; we’ll have to glean physical details from conversation that comes much later on; and we won’t even know where the couple lives for half the novel. So much is unclear, and will remain unclear, but we’ve got enough to go on. The processes of thought and writing are one and the same. Dixon tends to end stories—and books—in the same curiously flat way. There’s no closure; I’m not sure Dixon believes in such a thing. Rather, he begins in the middle of things, in the middle of lives, in the middle of conversations, and occasionally in the middle of sentences. We’re always playing catch-up because he rarely describes physical details, people, or the relationships between people except in the immediate context of the story and action going on. It’s nearly impossible to cherry-pick passages from his work for exegesis or as stand-alone quotes. Every word he puts down is integral to that particular piece, and none other. Dixon’s work does not favor the epigrammatic—as with, say, Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw—and it’s self-consciously affectless and unshow-offy.

Instead, the prose digresses, revises itself, jumps ahead to the things the narrator really wants to think about, obsesses over minor items, and doubles back to contradict itself, often in mid-sentence. His fiction moves in a flood of words. It’s relentless—the reader rushes through his stories in a mad dash, at the speed of his protagonists’ thoughts—but what’s startling is that we rarely if ever lose sight of who’s speaking or where someone is in relation to someone else in a room. For all the circumlocutions, Dixon’s sentences zip along. Again, from the beginning of a chapter in Meyer:

What now? Off the bed. Gets off the bed, puts his clothes on, gets his jacket, watch cap and muffler off the coat rack in the living room and leaves the house. Why leave? Just to do something. Walk, exercise, fresh air, see things. You never know. Also: Work ideas come to him outside better than in. Not so, but they do come, and one’s what he wants now. Has his memobook and pen? Feels his jacket pocket. Yes. “Don’t forget to close the storm door tight,” his wife said from her study as he was going out. “It’s ten degrees.” Ten? Cold. Is he dressed for it? He’ll find out soon enough. But by then he might be some distance from the house and won’t want to come back for more clothes. So, what is it, cold? Not so much. Ten degrees? Maybe one time today or it hasn’t gone down to that yet. Now it’s fifteen, twenty, and no wind, so not bad. Clothes he has on are plenty.

Meyer Ostrower’s in the throes of writer’s block, and he’s willing to set out, under-dressed, in ten-degree weather just to get his mind going. There’s something obsessive and weird about that, but there’s something funny about it, too. Dixon’s humor, and there’s lot of it, comes from the confusion that arises from these interrupted thoughts and blurted sayings. Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia, in a great routine, describes his thoughts this way:

I think there is something wrong with my brain where I don’t have an “on-deck circle” for ideas, you know, just “Batter up!” A lot of the ideas are bad and are at the plate going, “I don’t know about this one, Mike.” I turn into a drunk Little League dad: “You go take some cuts, Son.” That pretty much sums up my social inadequacies.

That’s the typical Dixon protagonist in a nutshell. They’re chatterboxes and politically incorrect nincompoops, all of them, except that they’re also intellectuals and internalizers to a man. The talk goes on in their heads. But they also rage and yell and blurt out things they should not, even after they’ve spent so much time contemplating their ideas. That talk, however, often doesn’t seem completely realistic. Instead, it reads like a stylized and exaggerated version of something might consider saying, with all the attendant fumbling and retracing of steps and pauses and restarts. In nearly everything Dixon’s written, his prose calls attention to the ways in which spoken and written language defines us, and fails to do so. His language is reportorial in that it reports the mind’s fluctuations in real-time as it processes ideas and words. He’s interested in the internal but not in the same way that Henry James is. Rather than interpreting thought (what this idea in my head says about me), Dixon records thought (how I got to this idea in the first place). It’s about the process—the free associations, the oddball connections we unconsciously make between ideas, the strange turns our minds take to arrive at a conclusion or a course of action. Dixon sets it out on the page in what initially seems to be unfinished, sloppy form. The conversations between characters read like first drafts of what people say, at first. Upon reflection, though, I think these half-colloquial/half-stilted dialogues are the ways we would actually understand our conversations, if they were recorded and played back for us. We imagine our phone conversations as sparkling founts of repartee; Dixon shows them to be stuttering messes. The border between conversation and thought is porous, stylistically, in Dixon’s work.

That’s because what he’s really writing about, often, is memory—how we reconstruct past events in our minds, how those reconstructions are at odds with how other observers recall the events, how our fantasies overlap and occasionally supplant what actually happened. I can’t count the number of Dixon passages that begin with the protagonist sorting through how a pivotal event occurs, only to have a wife or a brother or a friend proclaim his memory faulty and then proceed to argue with him about how it happened this way.

Dixon explores infinite alternatives to a situation and the contours of a person’s life. He’s the writer as cubist. In a story, he’ll look at a person’s situation or actions in as many different ways as possible. Interstate (1995), an entire novel based on the seemingly random murder of one of his daughters during a drive on the interstate, takes this idea to the nth degree. Each long chapter looks at the basic event—the protagonist is driving on the interstate, with his young daughters in the backseat, when a passenger in another car makes a rude gesture at the protagonist and suddenly fires bullets into the protagonist’s car, hitting the youngest daughter in the chest and killing her.

That in itself is harrowing to consider. What Dixon does with the material, however, is even more excruciating. Each of the book’s chapters examines the event from a different perspective. In “Interstate 1,” the shooting and death happen quickly, over the course of the first page or two, while the remaining 60 pages explore how the father reacts. He spends days at a time driving around, trying to find the killer, becoming convinced that he sees him in a variety of places, and finally ends up killing a man and severely injuring another—neither of which were definitively involved in the murder. The protagonist’s jail time, visits from his surviving daughter, and sad existence once he’s freed are all portrayed. The man never finds peace and, in a unsettling but appropriate twist, fades out of his own narrative. The chapter/story ends, instead, on his surviving daughter as she attends his funeral: “‘Okay, Dad, now rest in peace,’ and goes back to the cemetery office and asks the receptionist there to call a cab to take her to the airport.”

Okay, so that’s one version of the events. “Interstate 3,” a shorter chapter, basically imagines the shooting in real-time—it’s entirely focused on the moment of the drive leading up to Julie’s getting shot, and ends on the father screaming “when he sees blood running out of a bullet hole.” “Interstate 5” is taken up mostly with the shopping the father and daughters did before getting into the car—the final calm before the storm, before their lives are wrecked. “Interstate 6” is, for my money, among the most painful fictions I’ve ever read. As with the first chapter, the shooting and death happen quickly. The bulk of it takes place at the hospital where Julie is pronounced dead. The protagonist loses it, refuses to leave her body, mourns for hours, cries uncontrollably, and becomes a mess. What’s awful is that, as much as we sympathize with him, we gradually come to sympathize also with the doctors who want him to leave the trauma center so they can perform an autopsy and do the necessary. It’s too much, and Dixon refuses to flinch or allow his reader, too. He ups the ante by casting this long chapter in second-person; “you” experience this agony. No distancing is allowed.

By the end of the novel, we’re left with the possibility that the murder never happened, that the narrator has worried himself into imagining the worst. We’re left woozy, unsure of what we’ve witnessed, and which perspective should qualify as the definitive one.

As with Picasso and Braque, Dixon’s trying to—in prose rather than paint—get across the idea of looking at an object, person, or situation from a multitude of angles at once. In Frog (1991), there’s a long chapter—“Frog Dies”—that is quintessential Dixon. Essential details about Howard Tetch’s life (the name of his wife, what happens to her [divorce in one permutation, death by long illness in another], how he meets her in the first place) change abruptly. In “Again,” the novella/chapter that closes 2002’s I., the protagonist spends 45 pages running through variations of how he met his wife at a party. At a crucial line break, the story shifts (finally!) into the actual version, told (relatively) straightforwardly and with warmth and quiet sexiness. In 2005’s Phone Rings, a single moment—Irv picks up the phone, only to find out that his beloved brother has died—is recast in variation after variation; its structure is very close to Interstate’s.

As can be guessed from my summary of Interstate, Dixon’s novels are rarely told in chronological order. Chapters are usually discrete entities that can be read on their own terms, but our comprehension of the protagonist grows deeper with each piece, so that the novels have a sort of rigorous order. Interstate’s final image, of the father kissing both his girls goodnight after a long drive, and heading downstairs to make tomorrow’s lunch, would mean so much less without the horror that came beforehand. Although “Again” ends I. with the initial contact of the couple that dominates the novel, its effectiveness radiates because of how much time we’ve spent with them in the harder, more complicated days ahead.

Sometimes, Dixon pushes us along. 2004’s Old Friends is basically a single 220-page chapter, punctuated only by occasional paragraph breaks. 1987’s Garbage pulls the same trick, but at least sticks to chronological order, one damn thing after another. Since the mid-1990s, his chapters or thematic sections have consisted of long single paragraphs, which force us to stay focused. The trait perhaps started as an experiment but now is a stylistic tic.

Dixon tends to experiment more in his short stories that aren’t tied to any novels. “Milk Is Very Good for You” is a ludicrous erotic story that breaks down gradually as the events within it become more exaggerated; it falls apart linguistically. Man on Stage is a series of four one-act “prose” plays that take place in limited settings, so as to be ostensibly stageable, but they’re so interior-focused (like the “Circe” section of Joyce’s Ulysses) that they can’t really be staged. Movies, The Play and Other Stories, and 14 Stories all include wild one-offs and conceits that feel like goofs—this story will have no dialogue, this story’s from the point-of-view of a cat, this story’s a noir drama.

Still, his prose style and thematic concerns seem solidified from day one. He’s distinctive but under-recognized. While Dixon’s as formally challenging as contemporaries Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon, he resists writing about large-scale issues, social and political systems, or overarching Deep Think themes. This is perhaps one reason why he’s not more revered. He concentrates instead on the intimate—relationships between a man and a woman, a man and his typewriter, a man and his family (biological and extended). His milieu is domestic; he’s as devoted to family history and social rituals as Jane Austen.

As a result, his chronicling of women’s lives is richer and deeper than that of his fellow Jewish writers that rose up from the 1950s and 1960s: Roth, Bellow, Mailer. His most touching and complicated stories—the 120-page “Frog’s Mom,” the considerably shorter and funnier “Magna as a Child”—involve women as the central figures. Though he rarely writes from the POV of a woman (though “Magna as a Child” is a stellar example), he’s sympathetic to them. They’re thoughtful, intellectual free agents, with lives and interests that are independent from, and often counter to, his men. They’re kind, when they’re not ornery, when they’re not manipulative, when they’re not inquisitive. (They’re never docile or meek in Dixon’s world. Ever.) To make it plain, they’re complicated. They’re people.

In particular, there’s Dixon’s wife, Russian literature scholar Anne Frydman. Some time in the 1990s or late 1980s, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which has left her, progressively, unable to care for herself or to control her physical movements. The ailing wife as character entered Dixon’s fiction around the turn of the century, and the role of husband as caretaker—for sick wife, for ailing parents, for dying sister—is paramount in his recent work. Dixon tells it without sentimentality. The nuts and bolts of home health care—insurance battles, the daily grind, the time and energy that it consumes, the little resentments that build up—become major narrative threads. The depiction of aging and ailing has always been central to Dixon’s work, but has become increasingly poignant. The wife character remains sharp and witty in his prose, and just as prone to deflating the protagonist’s pretensions as a healthy woman would. More importantly, Dixon refuses to let depictions of the woman become sappy. She’s ambitious, agonized over her health, and intellectually and sexually curious. Dixon’s gaze is direct and honest.

Or is it? Dixon obviously mines elements of his life—his job history, wife’s health, two daughters, work as a struggling experimental writer, family history—for his stories and novels, but in interviews he makes clear that it’s not a one-to-one ratio between fact and fiction. He’d scoff, rightly so, at the previous paragraph’s conflation of real wife and fictional wife. We can glean the basic events of his life from interviews and jacket-copy bios, but he transforms this material into fiction.

That begs the question raised obliquely at the beginning: Is Dixon truly a novelist or a short story writer or what? He uses so much from his actual life. His novels explode the ideas of linear order and established forms. His stories often break down language itself. Hell, his stories are often about how inadequate verbal language is to our needs. His prose worries itself into holes, and can’t seem to decide on clear narratives to follow. It’s fiction that is suspicious of fiction’s aims, but that doesn’t trust nonfiction, either.

But it’s fiction all the same, with a voice that’s anxious, funny, and tenderhearted. Whatever else can be said about it, it belongs to no one but Stephen Dixon, warts and all.

———————————

My personal favorites include: Garbage (1987), 14 Stories (1980), Frog (1991), I. (2002), and Old Friends (2004). For beginners, I recommend I. (novel) and Sleep (short stories, 1999)—both are manageable in size, about 350 pages; give a great sense of the man’s oeuvre; and are in print.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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