Andrew Palmer at the Avery blog commendably champions the work of Stephen Dixon, but I can't completely agree with this account of Dixon's fiction:
Many readers, even ones I like and respect,. . .find Dixon infuriating or at least fatiguing. I always tell these people that they haven't read enough Dixon to like him. It's precisely the "word pranks," repeating, explaining, digressing, etc.--each novel a near-infinite digression, if you'll allow me my own word prank--that makes Frog compelling--moving and hilarious in equal parts, often at the same time. Its prose attaches itself to whatever its characters' minds alight upon, and because it's so often tied to the minds of its characters, it seems to flow at the speed, and rhythm, of thought--or, because the novel is packed with extended passages of dialogue, of speech. And his characters, in thought as well as speech, tend to ramble, often about seemingly banal topics, often about their own rambling or tendency to ramble. To steal another self-descriptive from Frog, it reads like "jerky nervous diversionary chatter."
I really don't think it is accurate to describe Dixon's prose as consisting of "word pranks," unless you think its repetitions, ramblings, and digressions are unfaithful to the way human beings actually confront the world and attempt to make sense of it. Sometimes, as in Interstate or Gould, Dixon uses repetition and variation to deliberately distort "normal" reality, but even in these cases the strategy is used to intensify the reality of his characters' experiences as they perceive them. In Interstate, we can finally understand the depth and intensity of feeling the protagonist has for his children and his own role as their protector only by sorting through each of the different scenarios the novel provides. But the digressive quality in Dixon's prose style is generally an attempt, or so it seems to me, to capture the immediate, frequently dissociative nature of ordinary experience. This is not an exercise in "word pranks" but an effort to represent that experience in something other than conventionally pretty prose.
I especially question the claim that Dixon's prose "attaches itself to whatever its characters' minds alight upon, and because it's so often tied to the minds of its characters, it seems to flow at the speed, and rhythm, of thought." It is true enough that Dixon's language reflects his protagonists' perspective, their "situatedness," but that it "attaches itself" to the flow of consciousness seems to me a misperception of Dixon's approach. There is very little "probing" of Mind in his fiction, simply an attempt to render experience as it actually unfolds, in all of its contingency and specificiity. This passage from Phone Rings is illustrative of Dixon's method:
Phone rings. He's too busy with schoolwork to get up to answer it. Anyway, during the day, nine times out of ten it's for Janice. Rings twice more and stops. Minute later she raps on the bedroom door with something--probably her reacher. "Yes?" "It's for you; phone. You didn't hear me yelling?" "No, and damn, I'm very busy." "It's Manny. Want me to tell him to call back, though it sounded important." "He probably wants advice where to send his stories. He's begun writing them again, Dan said, and that he might call. Okay," and she says "And keep your door open," and he gets up and gets the receiver off the dresser and says "Manny; what's up?" "It's Dad. Something terrible's happened." "He's not dead, is he?" and Manny says "I'm sorry, Uncle Stu, he is." "Oh no, oh my God." Later--days--he thinks every time something like this happens--someone tells him such bad news--he always says "Oh no, oh my God," and in that order.
One could say that Dixon proceeds through a kind of expository shorthand--"Rings twice more and stops"--that while "attached" to the character as a frame of reference is otherwise a way of dispensing with the overscrupulous explication of consciousness that so often and so tediously passes for "psychological realism" in contemporary literary fiction. In fact, while Dixon's fiction could hardly be called plot-based in a conventional sense, most of the emphasis is on activity and behavior--characters are called to the phone, take walks, move around the house, talk to one another. Indeed, in Dixon's most recent work conversation predominates. And not only "in thought as well as speech" do Dixon's characters "tend to ramble," their rambling in speech sounds almost exactly like what we might be tempted to identify as their thought processes separate from their spoken words. "Thought" and speech are practically indistinguishable. If anything, the emphasis on dialogue (which in novels like Old Friends and Phone Rings sometimes become more like alternating monologues) beomes a way of externalizing thought (see also Heather McGowan's The Duchess of Nothing), of reuniting what we think with what we do.
(It must also be said that, more often than not, the characters in a Dixon story or novel also sound like one another--the same hesitations, digressions, and fragmentary constructions, as if he is suggesting that in most of our discourse with one another we are all equally prosaic.)
I do think Andrew is correct in advising that readers not draw conclusions about Dixon's "infuriating" refusal of conventional narrative and expository strategies before reading several of his books. In many ways, these books are really of a piece, an ongoing effort to focus on those moments in our lives that most works of fiction ignore in the name of drama and narrative efficiency. What takes place off stage in these works becomes in Dixon's fiction the whole show. It can take a while to fully appreciate Dixon's resourcefulness in presenting us with these episodes of the ordinary.