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.