This review originally appeared in Bookforum.
Most attentive readers of contemporary American fiction are probably aware of Stephen Dixon 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 constructed out 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 from 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 sticks out 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 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 say 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 exchanges (in this case, as in Dixon's previous novel, Old Friends, exchanges 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, 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."
(This essay originally appeared in Full Stop.)
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.