Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Stephen Dixon

Several people have linked to this nice interview with Stephen Dixon at Failbetter. There's some interesting stuff about his writing methods, particularly the bit on how 30 and Gould came about through his processes of re-writing. But I want to quote this:
Your work is rich with highly distinctive dialogue—your characters talk in voices quite similar to one another, and to that of your narrators. Why do they speak this way? Do you worry that switching from unique voice to unique voice might break the flow of your narratives? Or do you mean to show that all characterizations are reflections as much of the author as of the characters themselves?

I don't agree that my characters talk in voices quite similar to one another. I try to make each voice distinct. If I haven't done that, then I've failed in a way. My women don't talk like my men and my men talk differently from one another. I have a sense, when I'm writing, of what each character is and the way he or she speaks, and I try to get that on the page. Certainly, all my characters are not reflections of the author. Where'd you get that? The voice of my characters is not mine.
I found this amusing, because I agree with the interviewer about Dixon's characters. Right now I'm one-third of the way through Phone Rings. It's only my third Dixon book (Interstate and Old Friends are the others), so I have limited experience, but the characters in it sound almost exactly like his other characters. I don't see this as a problem, I just don't think it's a crazy thing to say. I think Stanley Elkin's characters all more or less sound similar, and I love Elkin. Perhaps the difference can be found in that "more or less". They all sound like Dixon (or Elkin), but they also sound distinctly like themselves, and are indelibly imagined characters.

There are elements of Dixon's prose that I find potentially off-putting, and they are at the level of syntax and word choice. For illustration, here is a sample from page 105 of Phone Rings:
He called Dan and said "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...."
In a post reviewing Phone Rings early this year, Dan Green by coincidence quotes this same passage, at greater length, in part to demonstrate how "Dixon doesn't always seem at pains to delineate his characters with the expected kind of specificity"--how they do in fact sound much alike. In that post, as well as this one from last week, Dan argues that Dixon's fiction, by exploring the ordinary, the more mundane aspects of life that are usually ignored by more putatively "realistic" works of fiction, is much more "realistic", if by that word we mean not fiction that follows the conventions of "realism", but instead fiction which is more like life. I agree. Dixon's fiction is often painfully, even annoyingly realistic.

I got sidetracked from my attempted point about what is potentially off-putting about Dixon's prose. It has a lot to so with these, as Dan has it, "roundabout locutions" and "digressive asides", but also basic word choice. There are stretches where one of Dixon's characters speaks or thinks so digressively and apparently irrelevantly that it can be a chore to keep reading. There was more than one occasion while reading Interstate when I wanted to slap the father character, if only for the appallingly selfish and off-the-point things he would say to his daughters (in flashbacks to scenes occurring before the horror described repeatedly in that novel) and the ways in which they were constructed. In the passage I've sampled above, that "But that, later, for I don't want to lose..." is an irritating locution. The short-hand of the word "that", as if he can't be bothered to speak coherently, I find very awkward (there are similar examples that are much more awkward still; this one is fairly mild). The conjunction "for", when spoken, almost never sounds natural to my ears. As a result, it always sticks out as a word use--as does Dixon's excessive (it seems) use of certain contractions, especially "I've". Again, I've described these word choices as potentially off-putting, and certainly I, personally, have been annoyed by them on several occasions. It's tempting to say "no one talks like that". This might not matter in the least (and often is quite irrelevant), if it weren't for the idea that Dixon is effecting a sort of extreme, if you will, realism, with his piled-on thoughts and conversations. I once complained about these uses to someone who'd actually had Dixon as a teacher at Johns Hopkins, and she said "but he really talks like that!" Which I thought was funny, first of all. But also, well, of course people talk like that. People talk all kinds of different, awkward, sloppy ways. And Dixon and his characters are generally considerably older than I am, so this or that locution could easily be more common to a different age cohort. So this is just something I've had to get used to. It is also, admittedly, a matter of getting used to the rhythm in Dixon's style.

It's fascinating that Dixon's fiction manages to be, as Dan puts it, both experimental and realistic, as well as often being emotionally affecting. By exploring the areas of life usually ignored by so-called "realistic" fiction, by worrying at these lines of inquiry, teasing out countless permutations of a line of thought, Dixon risks irritating or even boring the reader. I think that in some way much of the tension in his fiction lies here. If we stay with Dixon through one more apparently tortured locution, or seemingly unending digression, we find that the work builds on what has come before, so that even those moments of irritation and tedium become essential to what makes the fiction work.

As far as future Dixon reading for me goes, I already own a copy of the massive Frog. The Failbetter interview with Dixon brings my attention more than ever to 30, if only because he said it's as good as anything he's written. I will also be on the lookout for Gould, which I know I've seen used various places. And I covet McSweeney's attractive bundling of I. and End of I....

1 comment:

Matthew Tiffany said...

I started with that McSw's bundle. Reading Phone Rings now. Sorry to only be commenting now, but I like what you've written here about Dixon. I continue to be amused and bemused about that Failbetter interview segment - surely, Dixon doesn't really think his characters don't sound alike? He's a great writer, regardless.