Reviewers of Stephen Dixon’s fiction often take note of the author’s continuing lack of widespread recognition, despite the high esteem for his work expressed by many writers and critics. By now it is no doubt unlikely that Dixon’s work will gain the kind of attention that would in any way equal its genuine achievement — and since Dixon is now 80, and has been forced to publish his most recent books with very small presses, there doesn’t seem much future opportunity for him to capture such attention. Dixon himself has long acknowledged this, telling interviewers — in the few he has given — that he writes for the sheer gratification of it, adhering to his own aesthetic standards and offering his stories and novels to available readers. Those of us who have accepted these offerings all along should ourselves be grateful he perseveres in spite of undeserved neglect and gives us his singular fiction with seemingly undiminished dedication.
On the other hand, it is certainly the case that new readers of Dixon’s fiction would find that his latest book, Late Stories, well-represents his most abiding strategies and assumptions and provides the kinds of satisfactions we can take from all of Dixon’s best work. They are satisfactions that are closely tied to the challenges and provocations of Dixon’s fiction, which on the one hand seems conspicuously unconventional, with its paragraphs that last for pages (sometimes the entire length of a story or even a novel), its run-on sentences that sweep in both exposition and dialogue in an undifferentiated rush, its narratives that seem to expand incrementally rather than develop; on the other hand, the ultimate effect of these initially disorienting devices is a very intense sort of realism — not the kind of unmediated, transparent realism produced by “normal” storytelling, but a kind of cumulative realism created by Dixon’s obsessive focusing and refocusing on specific events and details, often filtered through memory or alluded to in talk, sometimes through discursively drawn-out rumination.
In “The Vestry,” Philip Seidel, the writer protagonist of all of the stories in Late Stories, is contemplating going to a play being performed at a church in his neighborhood. Since his wife died, Seidel has rarely ventured out of his house, and surely nothing can be more convenient than an event held right across the street. Still, Seidel contemplates the prospect at length, first recalling his previous failed efforts to get out of the house and then attempting to fortify his resolve to make this one a success:
. . . Just try to get an aisle seat, if there’s a middle aisle, so he can see the stage better, though of course if nobody’s tall sitting in front of him. He doubts the seats are reserved, if they’re all the same price. And there’ll be refreshments there, he’s almost sure. In fact, he remembers now the sign saying so, the proceeds from it going to some medical research organization. No, a soup kitchen. But the point he’s making is he has to get out. He means, not doing just the same things every day. No, he doesn’t mean that. He means he has to stop giving himself excuses not to go to things. And the play’s right across the street. What could be more convenient? A two-minute walk. Doesn’t have to drive to it. No problem about coming home at night. And it’ll break the ice, sort of. If he goes to this, maybe he’ll go to other things like it . . . .
After Phil has made his way to the church vestry where the play is staged, he soon concludes the play is not worth his time and leaves after the first act. About the play and his response to it we learn only that “The play’s terrible. Everything about it: acting, writing, characterizations, laugh lines that aren’t funny, romantic and tender scenes and one tragic one . . . that are cloying, boring, totally unconvincing, something, but they’re awful. Fifteen minutes into the play, he wishes he hadn’t come to it.” That “something” may indicate Phil doesn’t have the right term to indicate his disdain, but it may also mean he’s searching for an excuse to leave, regardless of the play’s quality. The story is not about Phil Seidel’s trip to the theater but about his continuing inability to adjust to the death of his wife and resume something like a normal life without her, a state of affairs that Late Stories as a whole makes evident. Ultimately the book engages us precisely through its various inventive ways of reinforcing this hard reality.
Late Stories is obviously a book about the specter of old age and the shadows cast by declining vitality, but Dixon’s fiction has seemed autumnal for a while now. His last novel, (excluding the novella Beatrice and the uncharacteristic caprice, Letters to Kevin), His Wife Leaves Him (2012) dealt directly with the death of its protagonist’s wife, although in this case the writer’s name is Martin. Dixon has long drawn on what we must assume are the circumstances of his own life, although it would undoubtedly be a mistake to assume his fiction can be adequately labeled as autobiographical. (In his interviews, Dixon admits both grounding his work in his own life experiences and freely inventing when that seems necessary to the aesthetic integrity of the work.) Many of his stories and novels center around a writer character, presumably modeled on Dixon, whose wife is ill or disabled, as was Dixon’s own wife, Anne Frydman, who died of MS in 2007. His most recent fiction thus in a sense brings this broader story to a conclusion of sorts.
If Dixon’s subjects and situations usually remain familiar, each work a piece of what could finally be considered a single, expansive fictional canvas, both the stories and the novels can still surprise, especially in their formal strategies. The first story in Late Stories, “Wife in Reverse,” sounds its keynote by relating the story of Seidel and his wife’s lives together, in reverse order, beginning with her death — “His wife dies, mouth slightly parted and one eye open” is the first sentence — to their initial meeting at a party, all in slightly more than a page. Suggesting that his grief has severed Seidel’s ties with the ordinary course of events, the second story, “Another Sad Story,” finds Seidel in a gloom-fueled reverie in which one of his daughters has also died. Excursions into the explicitly dreamlike and fantastic are not unusual in Dixon’s fiction — Interstate, for example, recounts in multiple elaborated versions the story of the shooting of the protagonist’s daughter in a seemingly random event, unless it hasn’t, since in the end we can’t know what really happened, only that the father is clearly filled with dread at the prospect of losing his child. Similarly, what we take most forcefully from “Another Sad Story” is not the daughter’s death, which is just a waking nightmare, but Seidel’s emotional incapacitation: “I am a corpse,” he pronounces at the end of the story. “I can’t move.”
Other stories in the book depict Seidel imagining himself literally on his own deathbed, (one takes place in the aftermath of his imagined death), having conversations with the ghost of his wife (or dreaming about her), while others more straightforwardly portray him recalling the past or continuing to cope with his bereavement and what seems to him the impossibility of returning to a semblance of his previous life. In some he does attempt — or thinks about attempting — to begin a relationship with another woman. “Just What Is” shows the effort failing, while the follow-up story, “Just What Is Not,” show it apparently, if improbably, succeeding. “Remembering” is one of the more disturbing stories in Late Stories, as it relentlessly narrates a series of events clearly demonstrating that Phil’s short-term memory is failing, while “Feel Good” provides something of a breather from the prevailing atmosphere of melancholy and loss, as Phil experiences a day that seems to justify the story’s title. In “Therapy” he talks himself into consulting a therapist, again suggesting he might after all manage to persevere.
Perhaps the most affecting story in the book is “Missing Out,” a “what if” story in which Philip Seidel meets Abigail Berman at a party, but he is usurped in his attempt to ask her out by another man attending the party. Phil meets Abby a few additional times at the same annual party, where he learns that she married the man who had left with her at that first party. Years later he is told she has been diagnosed with MS, and eventually that she has succumbed to the disease, although her husband, unable to cope with her affliction, has treated her badly, divorcing her before the end. Phil expresses only regret that he missed his opportunity to become her husband instead, convinced as he is that he would have stuck by her through the bad years.
Seidel is clearly himself writing this story, although it is related more or less straightforwardly, without the sort of metafictional framing and interruption we often see in Dixon’s fiction. Perhaps Seidel is trying to assure himself through the telling of the story that ultimately he did do right by his wife, but the tone — and its ultimate effect — is wistful, as if the opportunity lost represents a profound impoverishment of Seidel’s life. None of the stories in this book really focus on the period of time in which Philip Seidel actually did care for his wife as her health declined, so we have no context, at least in this book, within which to judge the sincerity of the implicit declaration in “Missing Out” that Phil’s love for his wife eased the burden of caregiving. But in much of Dixon’s previous fiction, such caregiving, by characters generally similar to Philip Seidel, caring for wives very much in the same situation as Abby, is extensively depicted. Here the writer protagonist is sometimes prone to fits of anger and frustration at the tasks he is required to perform, although usually they are brief and do not lead him to abandon his responsibilities.
What is most notable, at least upon reflection, about Dixon’s collective portrayal of what we know must originate in the material circumstances of the author’s life is the disconcerting honesty of it. Even if we should remain cautious about attributing the characters and situations in the work to “real life” models, Dixon renders the Seidel-type fictional personae without flinching from their obvious flaws, at the very least taking the risk that readers will transfer their judgment of the characters to the author whose own behavior they presumably reflect. The impression of an autobiographical connection is perhaps reinforced by the habitual presentation of the characters as writers, although this feature of Dixon’s work actually introduces a destabilizing element into any final reckoning with both the formal and thematic implications of that work. The metafictional gestures are more than the perfunctory acknowledgement of the artifice of fiction but act to affirm such artifice as the means for getting a more truthful perspective on real life than can be provided by convention-bound realistic narratives, which in their way distort and reshape reality even as they ostensibly seek to faithfully reflect it.
While the life circumstances of characters such as Philip Seidel echo those of his creator, these characters themselves call attention to their acts of writing, so that we might say that writing stories is on one level just a character trait, their vocation. However, that the story we are reading is in the process of being composed is often made explicit through the activity of this character, who feels free to stop and start, to transform and transpose the details of the story being told — or just as often, not being told, due precisely to the fact that the narrative is in flux, subject to backtracking and revision. The act of processing experience, of attempting to bring to it a suitable form of aesthetic coherence, is Stephen Dixon’s most immediate subject. The myriad ways in which this might be done have been abundantly realized in Dixon’s fiction for over 40 years now, and Late Stories is an excellent illustration of this achievement. Through Dixon’s work we come to recognize what is most “real” about human experience: the effort to understand it.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His new book, Beyond the Blurb, has just been published by Cow Eye Press and his website can be found at: http://noggs.typepad.com.