This review originally appeared in Bookforum.
Most attentive readers of contemporary American fiction are probably aware of StephenDixon and his voluminous body of work, his plain-spoken expository style complete with serial run-on sentences and with paragraphs that might take up pages, his apparent useof his own autobiographical circumstances to slice off a seemingly inexhaustible supply of―real-life episodes. They may even have read one or more of his myriad short stories (collected in at least a dozen volumes) or tried one of the novels—themselves frequently constructedout of what seem separate and self-sufficient stories—perhaps Frog (1991) or Interstate (1995), probably the two most well-publicized of Dixon’s books.
Such readers may have felt somewhat at a loss. How exactly to approach a writer whose prose is so clearly distinctive yet finally almost not prose at all, so free does it seem of obvious signs of ―craft, of any recognizable evidence of being composed at all? What to make of a narrative strategy that seems to revel in discontinuity and to defy good order, that features long stretches of snowballing exposition and undifferentiated dialogue? Is this Dixon’s own kind of obsessive realism, or, given their frequent focus on writer protagonists and discussions of writing, are these stories and novels really a version of metafiction, and thus essentially to be considered ―postmodern‖?
Unfortunately, curious readers won’t find much guidance the reviews Dixon’s books have received, since they have often been equivocal, even contradictory, in answering many of these very questions. Moreover, except for Frog and the next few books following on its publication, Dixon—whose first book appeared in 1976—hasn’t really been reviewed much at all, intermittently at best. Even academic critics have been almost entirely neglectful.
Happily, the reader who picks the short novel Old Friends will have the opportunity to sample Dixon at his sharpest and distilled best. Old Friends provides a more or less straightforward account of the friendship between two writers. It manages, in fact, to depict this thirty-year friendship in a fully satisfying way over the course of 220 pages, relating its history in a series of salient episodes that evoke the relationship between these writers, Irv and Leonard, quite convincingly, if not through entirely orthodox means. Much of the ―action‖ in Old Friends occurs in the form of telephone calls between the two, later between Irv and Leonard’s second and much younger wife (and former student) when Leonard begins to suffer from species of dementia induced by Lyme disease. Along the way, Irv listens to Leonard describe the various irresponsible behaviors that lead to the dissolution of his first marriage, and in its wake he helps Leonard find the teaching job he needs to support himself.
Both writers come off as prickly sorts, opinionated and not infrequently self-absorbed, which if anything makes the fact of their sustained friendship even more unlikely. Although the novel ultimately focuses on Irv’s attempt to deal with Leonard’s irreversible mental decline, Irv himself has his own problems: His wife is an invalid who requires his help to perform the most rudimentary daily activities. (This situation is common to many previous Dixon characters as well, suggesting it is a reflection of the author’s own circumstances, although it recurs so often one simply accepts it as an established feature of Dixon’s fictional world.) Their conversations suggest that Irv is a somewhat more successful writer than Leonard, but Irv also struggles with the various forces buffeting those who would take up the mostly thankless duties of the serious writer in America.
Ultimately, however, Dixon’s fidelity to what seems a kind of unstudied immediacy in the portrayal of character—unstudied, but surely not artless—serves him well indeed by the time we get to the novel’s final encounter between Irv and Leonard in the mental hospital to which Leonard’s wife, Tessie, has been forced to confine him. The man once possessed of nothing if not a clear sense of his own personality (flaws and all), the writer concerned most of all with the marshalling of language, can now summon up only a stream of unmoored words:
"Leonard,"Irv says, going up to him after first approaching another patient in a chair he thought was Leonard, both of them pale and gaunt from not going out and just being sick, and that same loss of head hair, "how you doing?" and Leonard looks up, without seeming to recognize him, and then gives him a big smile and says "Hey, how are you, how’s it going, good to see you," and sticksout his hand and Irv shakes it. "Thanks for coming, but you didn’t have to, you know. I’ll be out of here before you leave yourself." "Very good; your humor, it never flags," and Leonard says "Oh, I’m a funny guy, all right. People always liked my jokes when I cracked them. They also liked to crack my nuts, but that’s a story we won’t go into. You’re a funny guy too, always funny, always cracking me up. But tell me, because I don’t want to be disrespectful to you or a fake, but what’s your name again?"
These final few pages of Old Friends are emotionally powerful in a way that is both well-earned and aesthetically convincing. The novel is a compelling and skillful–if idiosyncratic—work that should convince readers that Dixon is a splendid literary artist. His deceptively transparent prose style and ingenuous manner ultimately reveal a writer examining the profound issues we all confront at some time in our own unavoidably prosaic lives.
The fiction of Stephen Dixon starkly illustrates the difference between realism as a literary effect and "story" as a structural device, a distinction that is often enough blurred in discussions of conventional storytelling. "Realism" is the attempt to convince readers that the characters and events depicted in a given work are "like life" as most of us experience it, but, as Dixon's stories and novels demonstrate, story or plot conceived as the orderly--or even not so orderly--arrangement of incidents and events for explicitly dramatic purposes need not be present for such an attempt to succeed. Few readers are likely to finish his latest novel, Phone Rings (Melville House Publishing) thinking it does not provide a comprehensive and intensely realistic account of its characters and their circumstances, and of the family relationships the novel chronicles, but many if not most will have concluded that fidelity to the stages in Freytag's Triangle has very little to do with its realism.
Which is not to day that Phone Rings has no story to impart, only that it is one that emerges in the narrative long run, through the accumulation of episodes and interchanges (in this case, as in Dixon's previous novel, Old Friends, interchanges over the telephone), although the episodes themselves retain a kind of narrative autonomy separate from their placement as points on a narrative arc. Ultimately, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the relationship between the parts is lateral, not linear, the story an aftereffect of Dixon's relentless layering of these episodic elements. (In some Dixon novels, such as, for example, Interstate or Gould, the repetitions, reversals, and transformations he effects through such layering become the story, or at least what makes the story memorable and gives these novels their aesthetically distinctive shape.) One could say that Dixon's commitment to realism precludes imposing "story" when doing so would only be a way of distorting reality by imputing to it more order and more direction than it in fact has.
Dixon's strategy of allowing his fiction to register the mundane and the contingent can seem obsessive, even perverse. In section 7 of Phone Rings, the novel's protagonist, Stu, makes breakfast for his wife. Through a chain of banal actions, Stu accidentally cuts himself with a bread knife. He serves the breakfast and talks with his wife about the fact that he's just cut himself with a bread knife, then, returning to the kitchen and seeing the knife, he wonders what might have happened if the knife had struck his carotid artery. He returns to his wife, who suggests he put a Band-Aid on the cut. The chapter concludes with Stu going back to the kitchen, where he attempts to recreate the situation that led to the accident:
He went back to the kitchen and got the bread knife and opened the refrigerator and wanted to reproduce the way the knife got stuck in the door, but couldn't find a place where it could have got caught. Just somewhere here, in the top shelf of the door, and then before he could do anything about it the knife, buckling under the pressure and something to do with realizing it was stuck and perhaps overcorrecting the situation by pushing the door too far back, sprung out of whatever it was into his neck. Okay, enough; forget about it as you said.
In section 10, "Brother of a neighbor dies. Stu reads about it in the Sun. " Stu wonders whether he should send condolences, starts walking up the hill to the neighbor's house, decides not to after all, and returns home. "I'll just send a condolence card. I'll get it at the drugstore and speak to Peter about his brother sometime after," he says to his wife in the section's closing line.
While these set-pieces are loosely connected to the novel's overarching depiction of Stu's grief over the death of his brother, it certainly cannot be said they advance "plot" in any but the most incremental sort of way--they present us with additional scenes from Stu's life, but do not reduce that life to the bare sum of those scenes. Each provides an equally significant account, however brief or however extended, of Stu's experience (just as the telephone conversations that make up a large portion of the novel's "action" remain self-contained exhanges that allow Stu to invoke past experiences), but Phone Rings, like much of Dixon's fiction, encourages us to consider the portrayal of its characters' experiences as an end-in-itself, not as the prop for a conventional narrative structure artificially imposed on these experiences.
However, if Phone Rings is a novel of character rather than plot, Dixon doesn't always seem at pains to delineate his characters with the expected kind of specificity. Here is a phone exchange between Stu and his brother Dan:
. . ."I'm only calling to tell you something that might interest you that happened today. Of course, also to hear how you are. But that, later, for I don't want to lose what I called to say, unless everything with you's not okay," and Dan said, "No, we're fine. What?" "I was going through my top dresser drawer to throw out all the useless papers and single socks and so on, and came across Dad's old business card," and Dan said "Which one? His dental office or the one he used after he lost his license and sold textiles for what was the company called. . .Lakeside?" and he said "Brookhaven. On Seventh Avenue and 38th." "And a third card. In fact, four," and Stu said "This one was for his 40th Street dental office--his last," and Dan said, "That's what I was getting to. First the Delancey Street offfice, which he had from 1919 till we moved to the West Side in '37, and he set up his practice there. Then Brookhaven, if you're right, and it sounds right--Brookfield or Brookhaven," and he said "Take my word, Haven. . . ..
It is nearly impossible to distinguish between Stu and Dan based on their speech patterns and characteristics alone--and in this novel they are known primarily through their speech. Both exhibit the same tendency to free association and other kinds of roundabout locutions (perhaps influenced by American Jewish speech patterns), to digressive asides and fragmentary utterances. Moreover, many of the other characters in the novel talk like this as well, as if the novel's primary objective is to project a kind of collective voice or to create out of workaday language itself a collective character that is the utlimate focus of Dixon's interest.
This does not mean that the characters in Phone Rings are inadequately rendered or fail to convince as plausibly "real" people. If anything, Dixon's emphasis on the quotidian and the conditional only lends them authenticity--this is the way people actually do talk and act, after all--and his prose style more broadly so insistently restricts itself to the plain narrative essentials, refusing to indulge in figurative embellishments and descriptive decoration (literally sticking to the prosaic) that it might seem these characters are not the creations of writing at all but are merely being caught in the midst of their ongoing, prexisting lives. Thus, chapters begin like this:
His younger daughter comes into the bedroom and says, "Phone call for you." He's working at his work table and says, "Darn, I'm right in the middle of something. That's why I turned the ringer off." "Next time tell us to tell callers you're busy and you'll call back," and he says "Next time I will, thanks," and gets up and picks up the phone receiver and says hello. "Uncle Stu, it's Manny.". . .
This goal of representing life as lived (right down to including details and dialogue most other writers would simply eliminate for efficiency's sake) may also be the motive behind Dixon's often exessively long paragraphs. To adjust his prose to the artificial demands of paragraphing would be a false way of representing the flow of experience, and Dixon's method in effect forces the reader to regard experience in this way--one thing after another. His style--and it is such, a deliberate effort to compose a style that seems without style--does produce a flattening effect, by which actions, thoughts and speech seem to occur on the same discursive plane and receive the same degree of emphasis, but this is more fundamentally the consequence of an approach that seeks to make its treatment of reality as material as possible. We don't get "psychological realism" from Stephen Dixon, at least insofar as that term indicates an effort to plumb the depths of consciousness, to approximate the ineffable. His characters think out loud: "He'd never told Dan this. Thought several times to but then thought better. Made Isaac swear not to tell Dan or Zee about it. 'Oh, on second thought, you can tell her,' after Isaac swore he'd never tell either, 'but not Dan. You do, he won't let me take you anywhere for the next few years. I know him. . . .'" What originates in Stu's ruminations becomes just another form of exposition.
I find Dixon's strategies fascinating (he ususally manages to extend them just a little bit farther with each book) and his ability to elicit from them compelling and often emotionally affecting fictions impressive indeed. He's one of the few writers to whose work the descriptions "experimental" and "realistic" seem to apply equally, although his inclination to the former is almost always a way of further securing the latter. His relative lack of popularity among even readers of serious literary fiction is both surprising and understandable: Surprising because he's finally such an engrossing and rewarding writer, understandable because his style of realism, shunning as it does the facile resort to "story," calls into question the idea that fiction functions to elucidate life by, figuratively at least, whipping it into shape.
Dixon and "Psychological Realism"
In an otherwise positive review of Stephen Dixon's Meyer (which I haven't yet read), Craig Morgan Teicher asserts tht "While Dixon's jerky prose, often cast in several-page paragraphs, can be slow going, it's impossible to stop reading, in part because Dixon is so amazing at giving the sense of being inside somebody else's head."
I don't agree that Dixon's prose can be "slow going." It's usually demotic, accessible, briskly paced. That Dixon does not use his thoroughly transparent prose style--there's no forced figurative language, no frills, all of its focus is on evoking the realities of a world recognizably our own--to tell a conventionally plotted story with only the dramatic bits (those activities that give the story its proper "arc") included is what might make his fictions slow going for some readers who wonder where all the familiar narrative markers have gone. Dixon's prose doesn't "jerk." It ebbs and flows with the particular, momentary circumstances in which his characters are immersed.
But I especially can't agree with the notion that what Dixon is ultimately after is "the sense of being inside someone else's head." His stories and novels certainly wind themselves around the experience of protagonists, almost always male, usually bearing life stories and characteristics we assume are close to those of Stephen Dixon, whose activities are recounted in rather minute detail, but they do not engage in the usual probing of these characters' minds to create "psychological realism" of the now-customary kind.
Here's the opening of the chapter called "Frog Acts," from Dixon's 1991 novel, Frog:
In bed, must be late, no car traffic outside, light coming in, been asleep, up, asleep again, hears a noise in the apartment. He's on his side, front to his wife's back, both no clothes, hand on her thigh. Kids in the bedrooms down the hall. Light noise again. Could be the cat. Whispers "Denise, you hear anything? Denise?" Doesn't say anything, still asleep. He's quiet, holds his breath, listens. Nothing. Lets out his breath, holds it again. Sound of feet. Something. Moving slowly, sliding almost. Sliding, that's the sound. Could be the cat doing something unusual. Slight floorboard squeak. Cat's made that too. Should get up. Scared. Cold feeling in his stomach, on his face. Has to do something, what, scream? It it's someone then that person could in one of the kids' rooms, at one of their doors. Gets on his back, holds his breath. No sound. Lets it out, holds it. Shuffling. Sure of it. Down the hall's wood floor, just a few inches. Shuffling stops, as if he picked up Howard listening. . . .
The first sentence is entirely objective, entirely descriptive, as the narrator (it is a third-person narrator, as in almost all of Dixon's fictions) attempts to orient us to "Frog" orienting himself as he wakes up. It is not a very omniscient narrator (thus the "must be late"), but neither does the narrator/narration simply arise from within the perspective of the character. This outer-oriented narration continues for the next several sentences, although it is interrupted by what could be taken as internal notations of perception--"Light noise again. Could be the cat." Yet these could just as easily be taken as truncated expository signals: "Light noise again" functions simply to tell us that the noise that woke Frog has sounded again. "Could be the cat" does seem to report on Frog's reaction, but it's really a pretty superficial intrusion on his thought process. "'Could be the cat,' he thinks."
A fairly straightforward burst of speech then begins another series of reports on Frog's actions. He hold his breath, listens, hears nothing, breathes again. Then: "Sound of feet. Something. Moving slowly, sliding almost. Sliding, that's the sound. Could be the cat doing something unusual." While this proceeds from Frog's vantage point as the listener, none of it is going on only inside his head. It's still a way of relating (radically reduced as it obviously is) what is happening. Frog hears the sound, determines it must be "sliding." "Sliding, that's the sound" does seem to enter Frog's thought stream more explicitly, as it tells us that something like this articulated thought literally goes through his mind. "Cat's made that too" and "Should get up" also seem to be manifestations of Frog's specific thoughts, although "Scared" is unlikely to have occurred to him so explicitly. It's again the narrator's extremely compacted declaration. The rest of the passage continues with this alernation of condensed exposition and crystallized thought--"Cold feeling in his stomach, on his face. Has to do something, what, scream?"--until the final sentence brings us fully outside Frog's perspective with the registering of his name.
At the most, both the thoughts and the spoken words of Dixon's characters are recorded as if they were part of the scene of action, not as if they constituted a separate realm from the perspective of which the scene, events more broadly, are to be understood. Sometimes, as in his recent novels Old Friends and Phone Rings, the characters's spoken words are a kind of substitute for thought, a way of externalizing internal states into concrete action. You could call this "psychological realism" of a sort, but usually Dixon finds a way of avoiding the tedious exploration of "Mind" some critics would have us believe is the primary purpose of fiction. Thus Dixon's work does provide us with a vivid rendering of his characters' sense of their immediate surroundings and their ongoing interactions with those surroundings, but not through facilely thrusting us "inside somebody else's head."