Thursday, October 06, 2005
I like Stephen Dixon's stuff a lot. I remember the first thing I read was Frog, or maybe a collection of the short stories, but Frog was stupendous, like it's the first book of that length (over 700 pages) that I finished in like three days. When I met Dixon the first time when we had a signing for Interstate--or maybe Gould?--fuck it, we had signings for each at one time or another, well, at specific times obviously, but the vagueness is all memory. Mine, that is. But at any rate, I remember the first time I met him and helped him at a signing and I brought out my copy of Frog along with my copy of Gould or Interstate and asked him if he'd mind signing that as well? He smiled and flipped through to page 284 (of course I don't remember if that's the page, but it was something near there, some number like that with three different digits, sort of random, but maybe more in the 400s?) and fixed a typo in blue pen before scrawling a little note and signing his name. He had I think one or both of his beautiful blonde daughters with him; I think the oldest was perhaps almost a teen or had just recently become a teen at the time. "I hope you win," I said, and he wasn't sure what I meant, but I pointed to the National Book Award Nominee medalion on whatever book it was--must've been Interstate--and repeated "I hope you win." "Oh, yes, well, of course me too," he replied, but with modesty, or at least what I thought was modesty--could've been false, though. I mean, isn't someone so anal as to hand-correct typos in paperback editions of their own novels a bit arrogant? Perhaps not. But I thought Frog deserved to have won the NBA for which it was nominated, even though I have no idea now what won over it, and perhaps then I knew and hadn't read the winning title, but Frog engaged me like few books have. But over the years we spoke at three or four booksignings, and he used to recognize me in the store when he saw me--probably thought of me as many do or did then--as That Borders Guy. But I believe he called me by name near the end of the last times I saw him, as though it had sunk in after four or five booksignings I'd run for him, and after having written four or five or six inscriptions to me. But he might have only come close to my name rather than knowing it, like saying "Greg" or "George" with a quizzical, apprehensive face, not sure...I may have had to prompt him with my actual name. But I don't really care about that stuff much anyway. I like to leave celebrities alone when I see them, even when I regard them as personal heroes, the way I look at Dixon, who of course is not really a celebrity outside of those who read what is often regarded by critics as literary or academic or whatever label you have for it fiction.
But I like Dixon a great deal because his stuff is not autobiographical the way other fiction writers' stuff is--Dixon of course writes from his life like everyone else mostly does, but he's more willing to blur the distinctions between fiction and memoir and autobiography than others, and to paint himself less as an upstanding and heroic figure and more as just an average Joe (Stephen) who can be foolish, hateful, moronic, sensitive, helpless, hopeful, loving, moral, despicable, neurotic--at times all at once and at others by degree and in sequence. I mean just take this book I. for example. I hadn't even known about I. until I looked on Amazon and saw it there and was excited to death to know there was a new Dixon but realized it was new three years ago and I'd somehow missed it. But I got it yesterday in the mail and read it today, which should indicate my opinion of it. Yes, after a slow few months of not reading much at all I've been clipping along like mad lately--I've read four books in six days--but reading a 300-plus pager in one day is pretty fast even for me now. But I. has a great cover. It's a hardbound with the letter I and a period cut out, and the inside page has a drawing of Dixon so that he's kind of sheepishly peeping out of the I. on the cover. And you open the cover and there's this cool sketch of Dixon in blue ink, sort of like an elegant Mad Magazine kind of drawing, and I like it a great deal, though it looks more like the Professor from Gilligan's Island than it does Dixon in my opinion, and Dixon's resemblance to the Professor is less physical than it is...[think of a word for professorial or magesterial but not either of those and not spiritual either and put it here later]. But I mean come on--calling the protagonist of your book I. much like Kafka called his K. is a dead give-away that this is heavily auto-biographical. At one point the narrative even argues with itself about using the first person after starting in the third and then switching back to the third because it doesn't feel right and then the next chapter the protagonist is now I. instead of "he" or "I" or "me." You get the point. A lot of the writing is painful and sad and very touching, but Dixon is also very funny. I think I find him so engaging because I imagine from his stuff that he thinks of writing the way I think it should happen were I to ever do some. IE, that the stuff continuously going on in our heads--revisions of what we just thought and felt and what we should have said or not said or done or not done yesterday at dinner or on the phone with our mother or how we should have perhaps interacted with our boss in a slightly different way that time--that all of that is what writing actually IS, and that doing that honestly and openly is the key to good writing, and Dixon is the most honest of them all, because he lets it all hang out. There's a chapter in I. which is very painful and heartrending because it's about Dixon and his wife, who is ill, and how he takes care of her, but often loses his temper at the responsibility and then feels guilt about it, but he imagines himself in her place and her taking care of him and the way he resents how she treats him when she resents having to take care of him, and it goes on and on and is simply beautiful. He's written about this exact stuff before in Frog and in Gould and in 30 Pieces of a Novel but in I. it's the rawest and most intimate yet.
I forget the name of the short story but he's got a short story somewhere about an explosion at a planetarium, and how a bunch of schoolchildren and cafeteria ladies are trapped in the rubble with an adult male who refuses to hand the children up to rescuers until they make the hole big enough for him to get out because he thinks they'll take the kids and say to hell with the adults. It sounds awful, and it is, but it is fucking hilarious because it's real and like all his fiction it makes us think about how we make ourselves out to be much more noble than we ever have been or probably ever will be, and how we are most likely cowards and would act like jerks in such a situation. Anything that can cause such consternation, such self-examination, and so many "A-HA! I've done or felt or acted that way..." moments is ART damn you and don't try and tell me otherhow.