Review of What is All This?: Uncollected Stories by Stephen Dixon
I’m not going to go easy on Dixon this time. But I will read more of his stuff and decide if he deserves the accolades and blurbs.
The stories here are artificial because the mechanics of what he is doing are never concealed by the writing. You can see the gears turning in his writerly mind, and in some cases, predict what he is going to type next. This is the writing of someone with a gun to his head. In a way, the urgency of the words is immense, you can barrel through a void of unmeaning – while he churns butter – the literary equivalent of it – out of the void.
Some tales are genuinely moving though. They are tales of American desperation. At the same time they convey a desperation for recognition and are too often about how to infiltrate female trousers.
The plight of writers, rarely writing, but always seeking to be known, is a consistent subject. The author tackles this concept repeatedly, while not forgetting to include the unsung heroes of our country’s formidable industries of food and manufacturing. The stories do not often attain a resolution, are fundamentally uneven, a crap-shoot, and contain too much mundane conversation.
His most traditional stories are his best in my opinion, which could just mean I’m not impressed by pure experimentation. When he isn’t fooling around, his writing plumbs deeper and provides memorable drama.
When he nails the voice, he’s mightily convincing. His clipped ticker tape style is very easy to read. Dixon sticks to 85% dialogue much of the time, when describing the petty squabbles of lovers, he can be alternately clever and puerile, exact and infantile, and slipping into jabbering nonsense too quickly. The longer stories are sometimes well-fleshed out, multi-dimensional, and affecting. In many others, he is simply exhausting narrative possibilities. The most radically different ones are obnoxious catalogs of internal checklists, or monologues eliminating various scenarios ad nauseum. Pointless speculations, mindlessly repetitive worrying, automatic writing, and the rest of it, as if Dixon were trying desperately to fulfill a word count quota. The psychology of blame recurs again and again, as does marriage, guilt, and the spats of cohabiting men and women, irreducibly selfish in nature, these characters enact combat theatrics as if their lives depended on it. Unfiltered, raw, frequently awkward, rhythmic, free associative, could all describe the prose style. It is usually futile to search for deeper meaning in these mundane snippets of existence, too inconsequential a glimpse into a life, haphazard, free form rambling, coming off as pseudo-autobiographical, uber-realistic, depicting inner storms, the psychological conceptualizations of imagined interactions, the visualizations of internal turmoil, details piling up like Tetris blocks, until unexpected humor arises in metafictional commentary.
It is a mind unraveling onto paper. What happens seems inevitable. Cause and effect is all it is. Concerned with accurate dialogue, and conveying a realistic passage of time, he passes muster – you can feel you are living in the story. Often hoping for a climax, I was only faced with anticlimax, with real life, and disappointment. If you enjoyed Queneau’s Exercises in Style, these will offer similar distraction. Subtle intuition may be required to determine some of the character motivations, especially if you are not accustomed to the sparse, dry, occasionally captivating style. Longing, frustration, bureaucracy, torment, despair, ridiculousness, Kafkaesque situations and more congeal into an impactful package, when he pulls it off.
I enjoyed the couple examples of dystopian society, but the fragmentary recounting of everyday human relationships, the intricacies of emotion displayed, the gestures, the psychological associations, all the tough days, hard times, and bleak prospects wore me down. There is plenty of evidence that he was writing the first thing that popped into his head. I cannot discourage that enough.
Ordinary, abundant clichés abound in the character speeches cropping up in almost every story, but the situations contrived subvert some expectations. I hated the discussion of semantics, found the selfishness blasé, was reminded of the pain of living with another human being, did not appreciate the demonstration of the art of the whiny argument. On top of this, he covers domestic violence, adults fighting like children, and adults fighting children. The demands of interacting with people in harsh reality, the pain of humility and why it is necessary in human interactions, people making poor decisions and suffering the consequences – all part of this circle of life. Dixon’s literary exploration of an imaginative environment yields a few gems. Mostly it is a bunch of goofy, gabbing, crabby men and women, irresponsible man-handling peddlers of quirky disturbances, cockamamie schemes, swagger, robust jiving, pin head roundtable debates, blustering blowhards, flimsy blokes with parasitic leanings, or Dixon’s typewriter had diarrhea.
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