Let’s take a moment to consider Stephen Dixon.
Dixon is underappreciated. Or rather, Dixon is hugely appreciated by those who have read him, but he is read too infrequently, and by too few people.
Stephen Dixon is not a difficult author, per se. He is a genius of the declarative. The sentences are not overlong. The dialogue is pretty straightforward, really. And, too, his subject matter is predominantly domestic. There is joblessness, adultery, quarrelling, rejection. Stephen Dixon’s stories are, on the face of them, about the same things as, say, an Alice Munro story, or one by Lorrie Moore.
The difference between these authors and Dixon is immediately recognizable but hard to describe. It might indicate something to say that Munro is in the school of Stefan Zweig, while Dixon is a descendant of Robert Walser. Dixon’s characters, like Walser’s, somehow do not fit. It’s not just that they are cuckolded or desperate or overly formal. Somehow the world they are in is wrong, it and they do not, cannot, dovetail together the way we expect. The edges are rough or constrictive, and the world can never be worn down by this friction, only the character.
Let us call that the first tenet of Stephen Dixon: the world can be—though we are in it, of it—ill-fitting, like pants. The world is like pants. And the pants always win.
Dixon is a writer of confusion. That is not to say, let me emphasize again, that his work is confusing. It is almost deadpan. It’s just that his characters are nearly uniformly confused. We know that somehow they are not getting something right, but they, their voices, are too large. We cannot see around them to the sort of reassuring objective Real we might crave. Which to a shocking extent reveals that other authors are letting us peek around their characters, or feel that we could.
So let that be the second tenet of Dixon: that the world is only as large as each character, that there is an honesty and rigor in confusion.
There are a host of authors being published now who deal in confusion brilliantly, I think: Manuela Draeger; Rene Gladman; Joanna Ruocco; Gary Lutz, just to list some of my recent favorites. But so often the confusion in their work is our confusion, is created by, not dissembling really, but by building a world on a logic different than our own, different than that of traditional narrative. The systems of their fiction are unknown and, what’s more, cannot really be known, because they shift around you. That is not Dixon’s trick. For Dixon the world is mundane. There are few moments of the surreal. And that is part of the power of this work. Because the mundane is nonsensical in its own right, almost violently so if, as with Dixon, you simply let yourself, your characters, know it a bit less, let them be naive. In many of these stories a bit of surreality would even be a relief, would give us a distance from the strange rules of power and sex that are bared by his simple, relentless sentences.
Let that be the third tenet of Dixon: the surreal is a kindness, and one we may not deserve.
This book is in our store now. Fantagraphics has done a beautiful job on it. Come grab it.
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