I’ve been wondering what’s happened to Stephen Dixon since his retirement two years ago and the publication of Meyer, and now I’ve got an answer: He’s been working, of course. Here’s a new short story, “Mr. Greene,” in Baltimore’s Urbanite Magazine. It begins as follows:
It was a beautiful day, clear and dry, the orchards soaked by the early-morning downpour and smelling of fallen fruit and fresh buds. Life fantastic, I thought, when something hard was shoved into my back and a voice said don’t turn around.
“Don’t turn what?” I said, turning around and seeing a man holding a handgun.
“Didn’t I say not to?” and he split my head open with the gun butt, and while I lay on the ground howling for help but not sure if my words were coming out, and trying to divert the stream of blood running into my nose and mouth, he shot me twice in the stomach and once in the head.
I woke up.
The story’s like a Russian egg doll, with the narrator continually waking up from a dream that ends in horrific gun violence, going about his day rattled by the shooting, and then finding himself in another situation involving guns, blood, and terrible death. Each permutation convinces us that it’s the real thing–even as the violence escalates to something approaching a cartoonish action movie–for just a sec before pulling out the rug under our feet again. And again, and again.
Dixon seems to be exploring, once more, the cubism-in-prose style that he’s been working at for a decade. I wrote in detail about this method here:
As with painters Picasso and Braque, Dixon’s trying to—in prose—get across the idea of looking at an object, person, or situation from a multitude of angles at once. In Frog (1991), a long chapter—“Frog Dies”—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.
In “Mr. Greene,” Dixon unfolds new permutation after new permutation of a man’s life–he wakes up to a different career, different class level, even a different relationship to his wife (relaxed and loving in one instance, tense and hard-edged in another). The binding event is Greene’s getting short, and it’s here that I notice that Dixon’s cubism–slicing a life into a variety of fragments, some of which conflict harshly–is rooted in violence. I’ve read enough Dixon to know that, although Frog’s cubist structures precede Interstate by a couple of years, it’s the latter novel that provides the clearest set of the writer’s principles in this regard. Like Interstate, “Mr. Greene” wrenches us from one tragic scenario, only to plunge us into another before we get acclimated to the new ground.
So, it’s rough sledding, but I’m glad to have Dixon back.
The bio section notes that Fantagraphics (really?!) will publish Dixon’s three-volume (really?!) set of stories called What Is All This?. That, by the way, is a hilarious title for a story collection.
(I can't verify the last two sentences independently, and Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks [see below] indicates that Fantagraphics doesn't have the title on its forthcoming list. So, could be true–presses have been coy about their expected titles before–but probably not. Take the last part with several grains of kosher salt.)
(Thanks, Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks.)