Saturday, July 21, 2012

Second Quarter Fiction Notes: The Johns Hopkins Connection

I read a bunch of fiction in the first half of this year, in an effort to cull the personal library. I was going to do a single re-cap post of this reading, with short remarks, but some of the remarks ran long. So I'm going to separate them out a bit. Here, then, are some notes about books written by two writers long associated with Johns Hopkins University here in Baltimore, John Barth and Stephen Dixon. (Oh, and the "second quarter" in the title is a misnomer of sorts, since the Dixon books were read in the first quarter, but no matter. No one but me's keeping score.)

On With the Story, John Barth - This is a short-story collection from 1996, Barth's first since his much-loved 1968 collection Lost in the Funhouse, a book I frankly found rather annoying. This is the first Barth I've read in years (I still have the enormous novels Letters and The Tidewater Tales sitting on my shelves; it remains to be seen whether I'll take the time to read them). I found that, overall, I enjoyed On With the Story. As is typical with Barth, story-telling is the story. He tries out different modes of telling stories, interrupts frequently to comment on the telling, foregrounds the artificiality of the constructions, writes in very playful, overly punny language that isn't afraid to be annoying, throws in theory about storytelling, including references to how this or that story measures up to the theories, etc. And there's an interspersed framing story throughout (which I suspect was new for the book, whereas the stories themselves all appeared elsewhere previously), with a couple on some kind of perhaps-but-it's-not-clear-last-hurrah vacation, the husband telling the wife stories, which are the stories in this book. All well enough done, some more interesting than others, some admittedly irritating (the sexual wordplay especially: William H. Gass also indulges in too much of this kind of boring guff), but what I really want to highlight is Barth's remarkable ability, amidst all of these meta-fictional methods, to nevertheless create characters and situations that seem real and that we care about. I know, I know; forgive me. Often this kind of observation is made as part of a criticism: why doesn't he just stop with all this tomfoolery and get back to telling the "real story"!? as if there is one somewhere in there in the absence of the so-called tomfoolery. Rather, I think it's fascinating how these so-called "games" both comment on and constitute the "real story". The characters actually attain whatever solidity they seem to have through these very "games" themselves.

I., End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon - I had had four unread Stephen Dixon novels sitting on my shelves, and have now read three of them; the massive Frog remains. As I was reading these novels, I was also trying to decide whether Dixon's books would remain in my personal library, or be discarded. Ultimately, I decided that I like him just enough, and find him just interesting enough, to keep (On With the Story, on the other hand, was discarded, somewhat arbitrarily, I admit, since I clearly liked the book and found it similarly interesting, but I don't know...). In a post I wrote about Dixon several years ago, I said the following:
Dixon's fiction manages to be […] 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.
It's interesting that in almost all of his fiction, Dixon's narrator, or the main character (or both), is a writer, like he is, who splits his time between Baltimore and New York, like he does, or did, and who is married, usually to a woman with MS, who he takes care of. Many of the details change; he's not always exactly the same. But the focus is often on tedious everyday life stuff, and especially on the minutia of care, the difficulty and unpleasantness in caring for his wife (I often cringe reading this stuff, imaging Dixon's [now deceased] real-life wife reading it; and the writer character often does not come off well at all). The narrator often starts and re-starts the same bits of story, from different places, details changing with each re-telling. I. does this very effectively at times; the narrative is unstable, as if the narrator is trying out different possibilities.

In this sense, Dixon, in these books, struck me more than ever as a kind of Beckett-lite. Not in the sense of Beckett's actual increasingly spare project, but, say, the Beckett on the cusp of that project, the Beckett of Watt. (also, Dixon's prose is pedestrian by comparison with Beckett's, and all too often comes dangerously close to being outright bad). Recall, there, the passages which unfold various possible ways in which Watt may have entered Mr. Knott's house, or the sequence describing the preparation of food, and the availability of the dog, and so on—recall, that is, Beckett's apparent reluctance to "bully the reader", to insist on his story, resulting in, as Hugh Kenner put it, the "provisional nature" of the narrative. In I., as noted, Dixon considers his narrative from all possible directions, all possibilities. He won't let the reader settle on a given sequence of events. In particular I'd direct the interested reader's attention to the final chapter, "Again", by far the longest, in which we read several somewhat overlapping accounts about how I. and his future wife met. Was it at a party? Was he invited? Was she already in a wheelchair? The details shift across the chapter, never allowing us to settle into a "real" story. There is also, throughout, evidence that what we're reading is being written, perhaps a rough draft, with occasional interjections, such as "no, that's not right", or comments on word-choices. "Again" is an example of this too, and not only because of the shifting nature of the narrative. Here's how that chapter begins:
He meets her at a dinner party. Did that he doesn't know how many times. Meets her walking up a building's stoop to the party. Meets her while resting on his way up the brownstone's stairway to the party. Meets her in the apartment building's elevator going up to the party. Meets her outside the door of the party where she's taking off her snow-wet boots and changing into shoes. Meets her coming out of the one bathroom at the party which he knocked on repeatedly because he had to pee badly and thought the person inside was taking too much time. Meets her on line at the buffet table where they're both helping themselves to food. Meets her at the drink table which he followed her to so he could introduce himself.
That second sentence stands out a little (who did what how many times?) so that it seems that it's the writer writing. Perhaps the subsequent sentences are some of the many times he's attempted the meeting in writing, and so on.

Meyer focuses on the writer character's inability to write. Each chapter is a different attempt by Meyer to get moving on his writing, though distractions abound. It's an enjoyable read. Of the three novels, End of I. is by far the weakest, and most irritating. My understanding is that Dixon had expected to be writing three novels for McSweeney's (publisher of I.), who then decided they either weren't interested after the first one, or had stopped publishing fiction for a bit (that doesn't sound right, somehow, but I can't be bothered to look it up), so then he re-used some of the material for books published through Melville House (publisher of Meyer, as well as Old Friends and Phone Rings), then McSweeney's called back, wanting another book, and he cobbled together a short second volume, End of I., and it does indeed read like leftovers.


BDR said...

New Dixon novel supposedly coming. He's never sung to me, though it's time to try again.

Richard said...

I. and Meyer aren't bad places to start (or re-start), I think.

David Auerbach said...

I think Frog and Interstate are his peak. The mid-90s Stories collection also cherrypicks some of his very best, including bits of Frog. But the sequence from Frog to 30, more or less, seems like a major exorcism and his strongest period, after which his work takes on a more valedictory quality, which Meyer may be commenting on.

Richard said...

Thanks, David. Agreed on Interstate. I still mean to read Frog, but its size lends itself to procrastination, and also possibly 30 and Gould.

I'd also agree his recent work all seems to be of a piece, more similar than not.