The Permutating Brain of Stephen Dixon

By Blake Butler


Stephen Dixon, self-portrait

Stephen Dixon has published at least 27 books of fiction. There may be more—it always seems there are deeper crevices to Dixon’s body of work that I’ve somehow overlooked or lost in the big American body of words. His is one of those voices that you know immediately, yet there is always something slightly unexpected about it, if in the most everyday of ways. Still, he has somehow been overlooked as one of the masters of recording how a person thinks, how days go, what it feels like to be alive inside a brain.

The foundation of Dixon’s writing is in human interactions—not a field I’m usually hellishly into. Much of his writing is composed as if it were spoken aloud, and the sentences are often long and change course, sometimes midthought. The narration can jump years ahead in the breadth of one paragraph, and then back again, assembling in its wake a continually widening picture of a life, without the necessity of framing, reenactment, and formality that other “realistic” novels often work within.

Old Friends (2004), for example, consists mostly of a series of conversations between two aging men who have spent their lives close to each other, working as professors, trying to write. The narration, rather than depicting scenes or laying out the sprawl of two old dudes getting old together, works almost like memory itself does. The men call when there is something to say, and sudden juts of recollection pop up naturally, in conversation. Death is described with the same clipped, meandering tone as having breakfast: “It could have been a tree that fell on him while he was running. Or he could have tripped on a tree root or rock and banged his head so hard he got a blood clot and died. Or a heart attack or stroke while he was running. Or else tripped. Got up fast to continue his run—’you know Dad’—and tripped much harder this time because he didn’t know he’d broken a leg in the first fall, and then hit his head.” When one of the men gets sick, his wife becomes the voice at the other end of the phone, suddenly shifting the entire feel of the narrative, and the range of possible observations. There’s something surprisingly moving, not necessarily in any one thread of conversation, but in the way it begins to click together, the way the lives knit and build so freely, having amassed so much time. The thread of the voice seems considerate, open, placing the heavy beside the light, and carrying its experience the way skin does: by simply being.

Dixon offers as much of his protagonists’ everyday behavior as he does their moments of drama. He relays what’s happening in their lives from their perspectives whether they are simply trying to explain the article they read on the effects of drugs on a rodent, retelling what happened earlier while making coffee, or discussing the daily wear of changing the bedding of one's terminally ill wife. It all comes out in permutations of the brain struggling to interact with itself while simply continuing along.

The sick wife is certainly one of the more memorable elements of Dixon’s fiction. She shows up constantly—sometimes as an aside, and sometimes more centrally. One of the first Dixon stories I read was “The Switch” from the short story collection I. (2000], which slyly begins, “He tries to put himself in her position.” From there, the protagonist enters into the body of his wife, who is confined to a wheelchair and needs help getting in and out of bed, going to the bathroom, etc. The wife, who has gone into her husband’s body, helps the protagonist through his day, frequently becoming frustrated, often to the point that she comes across as shitty and rude. The husband begins to feel bad for being a strain on her, for ruining her life, and wonders if he should kill himself. The narrative is so clear and open in its acceptance of the protagonist having become a burden against his will that the reader forgets this is actually how the wife must really feel, and that it is the man who is subjecting his wife to these feelings, in his frustration. “I can do less for myself every day, he thinks. One of these mornings I’ll wake up a total vegetable and I won’t get any better and then when I’ll really want and need to kill myself—when the feeling to do it won’t just suddenly pop up and then go away—I won’t have the motor control to carry it out, not even to unscrew a container cap or bite it off to get at the killer pills, if by then she’d even leave them around like that.” The reversal of roles makes what could be otherwise melodramatic or obvious feelings triple in effect. Dixon’s ability to be frank with himself, to express feeling in a way that doesn’t sound affected or overwrought, puts him in a position of great power, simply by tweaking the framework and understanding how people actually think, feel guilt and pain.

Much of Dixon’s work doesn’t have a defined beginning or end beyond the subtle framing mechanisms. His plots derive their power from the protagonists’ ability to reflect, and in that reflection, use their imagination to explore what could have happened and what might happen next. Perhaps his most famous book, Interstate—which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995—is basically a 400-page set of block paragraphs concerning one simple act played out dozens and dozens of ways. The book opens with the protagonist driving down a state highway with his two kids in the backseat. A van pulls up beside them and keeps pace beside his car. The person in the van signals to the father to roll down his window, and when he does the passenger pulls out a gun and aims it at the protagonist’s head. “'Just to scare you, the man yells, 'that’s all you know, and you’re scared right?—look at the sucker, scared shitless.'” Then nothing happens. The other car follows them, still aiming the gun, until the protagonist pulls off and reverses in the emergency lane to get away.

What is spawned, though, from this random occurrence, is an endless sprawl of possibilities and fears and traumas in the protagonist’s brain. For hundreds of pages he plays out in his mind over and over all the ways the scene could have ended differently: some in violence, some in other manners of escape, some in which the protagonist spends the rest of his life searching for the men on the highway, some where almost nothing happens related to the scene, but from which the lives of the protagonist and his children continue on. To me, Dixon’s ability to spin new emotions out of almost anything, over and over, is a great display of a writer at the height of his talent.

He should be remembered as one of postmodern modernism's greats.

Previously by Blake Butler - What I Remember from Getting an MFA in Creative Writing

@blakebutler

Comments