The New York Times Book Review
Sleepby Stephen Dixon
Short Fiction. Short stories from the past twenty-five years by a master of contemporary fiction, collected in book form for the first time. Dixon's quirky style almost renders ordinary exposition unnecessary. Instead, Dixon careens back and forth between machine-gun dialogue and description, mergin thoughts, conversation, and other absurd narrative into a single
Short Fiction. Short stories from the past twenty-five years by a master of contemporary fiction, collected in book form for the first time. Dixon's quirky style almost renders ordinary exposition unnecessary. Instead, Dixon careens back and forth between machine-gun dialogue and description, mergin thoughts, conversation, and other absurd narrative into a single mind blurring entitiy Bob McCullough, The Boston Globe. Stephen Dixon is a two-time finalist for the national Book Award, for FROG and INTERSTATE, and the author of twenty books, among them PLAY AND OTHER STORIES also by Coffee House. The stories in SLEEP have previously appeared in such places as Harper's, Triquarterly, and Best American Short Stories.
The New York Times Book Review
Too much for one person to write? Too different for one artistic intelligence? Readers ponder and critics ask: don't the meganovelists like Pynchon and Gaddis write big tomes of excess, while experimentalists like Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman mix genres and media? Wasn't Raymond Carver the minimalist, and John Updike the well-crafted mannerist? And don't those writers have vastly distinct readerships and critical followings, some of them coming to blows? Who is this guy who gives the lie to those distinctions by presumably doing it all?
The Stephen Dixon short-list for Spring 1999 presents some answers. 30 (Henry Holt, $30) is the massive one, extending its subject while mixing means. Correctly called a novel (because it develops a central character, Gould Bookbinder, first considered at length in Gould), 30 assembles exactly that number of individual takes in a way less accumulative than conclusive. In old-fashioned journalism, typing a "-30-" at the bottom of your last page signaled to the typesetter that your story was finished. The 30th item here is called "ends," and at 300 pages-almost half the volume's length-it closes the book on this guy. He never appears in Sleep (Coffee House Press, $15.95), a collection reaching back to the late 1960s but mostly containing work written in the gaps between 1990's Frog and 1998's Gould. Hence the two new titles round out the millennium for Dixon, reminding readers of how many ways there are to write.
Sleep is a typological index to all this author can do. As always, he's a master of having the most minimal thing generate a universe of possibility: "The Dat" does this comically, "The Knife" tragically. But in each case the emphasis is on how well- launched fiction can proceed almost purely on its own momentum. There's a reflexive action to writing, of course, as demonstrated in "Tails," where the narratology consists of its own examination. But Dixon's genius has always been to accomplish this without suspending the rules of reference. In "The Elevator," for example, a story that is patently self-referential gets discussed within the reasonable and recognizable time that an elevator door can be held open-halted, that is, without angering those on other floors who are waiting, which is just the real-life situations that motivates this literary discussion. Henry could have devised, such as when in "The Tellers" a well-meaning bank employee turns a neatly planned robbery into a gruesome capital offense from which the robbers emerge as heroes while he himself is reviled.
Yet all these tricks and technical flourishes are not merely for themselves. Once attracted and amused, Dixon's readers are more easily affected and instructed, sentimentally so in "On a Windy Night," where three generations of fathers and daughters rehearse (and rewrite) a cherished memory as evidence of their own hold on family life. Dixon's narrators remember; they also project, creating impossible futures that exist only thanks to the English language's subjunctive and optative moods. Entire lifetimes can be lived in such shoulda-would-coulda worlds, and Dixon is a writer who can sustain readable and believable narratives on this level-"The Rehearsal," which opens Sleep, shows this well. There is also the collection's title story waiting at the very end, where a sleep-deprived husband questions his motivation in responding to his wife's death. This self-interrogation is pure Dixon, as tricky and as crafted as any of his stunts-turning a cat and its keeper into a pair of scavenging dogs, sending a character on a wild goose chase of endless replications, and so forth-yet in Sleep the method lets readers share a remarkably deep sense of bereavement, just the sense that the self-professed trickery of our times would seem to have banished.
That's the virtue of Sleep and the larger project in 30 in a culture that wisely distrusts any writer's attempt to totalize experience, Dixon pulls it off, recovering a sentiment about life that so much of postmoderism and modernism before it have made illegitimate. The key is appreciating that if we want to comprehend experience, it has to be in a way that lets its facets retain their own integrity. In Dixon's work there are no phony summations-indeed, if you try to totalize the points he makes, they don't add up. Among the 30 sections of 30 there are rampant contradictions within the characterization of Gould Bookbinder, contrasting aspects of his personhood that in a conventional work would never fit together. So in order to write about them, techniques must be adjusted, sometimes coming across as self- reflective questionings, occasionally expressed as acutely mannered adjustments of literary style, and more often than not drawing on the author's genius for projection in order to seize even a passing moment's amplitude. But in the end Gould Bookbinder is covered; as much as we can understand anything in these confusing times, he is known.
30, then, is as much a meganovel as anything Pynchon or Gass might write, yet presented with the acuity of a minimalist and with the care of an author conscious of language's effect. In giving life to its central character the book creates a useful presence by recovering lost time from the past while projecting an infinity of hypopotheticals for the future. Within both actions a very real Gould Bookbinder can be located: recalling the signal events of his childhood; celebrating the successes he's had as an adult yet always fearful for their possibly imminent demise; glorying in a moment's happiness while fretting over sadnesses he may well have caused. How convincing is Dixon's method? In once piece,"The Bed," he lets Gould tell the story of his mother's death, a simple six-word statement that to make sense must be expanded to 13,000 words-words that in turn regret, remember, and only at the very end dramatize in the full sense that if placed up front might have been dismissed as sentimentality. As with "Sleep," from the collection, "The Bed," in his meganovel about Gould Bookbinder, picks the one ultimately unverifiable experience, death, to test the powers of comprehension. One hundred years ago fiction writers were not daunted by such challenges, and neither is Stephen Dixon today. He takes us through the process with a healthy respect for all we've learned about life and literature since Dostoyevsky and Proust, and once he's done we get it.
Though Dixon has twice been a National Book Award finalist, he is often labeled an experimental writer for his habit of turning mundane stories of suburban angst into frazzled, disjointed takes that weave drunkenly between narrators. Many of the stories in Sleep find him in fine, intoxicating form, spinning lines of stilted dialogue with a metafictional wink and nod. Consider the following passage from "Tails," a story that does not even maintain the pretense of being about anything: "I go into the house. I'm in the house. I'm alone. I'm with someone. She's there. Or he. Another man or boy. Or me. I'm he. Just I'm here. I talk, I walk. I can't talk, I can't walk. I crawl on my belly like a reptile, as she said. . . " and so on and so forth until the collection's title begins to seem prophetic.
Obtuse as it occasionally is, Sleep also displays Dixon's well-honed sense of the absurd. In "Dat," a man cajoled into sitting for his ex-girlfriend's cat runs short of cash and takes to feeding the pussy puppy chow because it's cheaper. In Dixon's skewed universe, the cat metamorphoses into a dog (thus, the "dat" of the title), and when the man begins eating Purina, he too turns into a dog. It's the old "you are what you eat" premise, but Dixon carries it off with enough deadpan humor to make it palatable.
In another tale, a man eavesdrops on a conversation as he waits for an elevator. The discussion revolves around a short story from a recent fiction magazine that consists of four phrases: "ÔHere is the story, this is the story, that was the story, and that's it, the story.'" Observing people arguing vehemently about fiction that bears a striking resemblance to his own, Dixon pokes fun at himself while slyly suggesting that people will read and enjoy almost anything if you call it avant-garde and put it in the Atlantic Monthly.
When Mr. Dixon isn't turning people into dogs or engaging in his peculiar brand of linguistic onanism, his stories are very good in a conventional way. As a number of the pieces in Sleep attest, he is especially adept at dissecting the layered neuroses of middle-aged men caught in psychic holding patterns of their own devising. In "The Stranded Man," one of these unfortunates constructs and elaborate daydream in which he is marooned on a desert island. Elsewhere, a vain theater impresario obsesses about an ill-fitting toupee, and a man becomes fixated on an object by the side of the road that he imagines may be a dead body. With relaxed grace, Dixon creeps into the troubled minds of his characters until the stories themselves begin to seem like extended conversations between men and their unconscious minds.
Heady stuff for the most part, but Sleep occasionally lands a visceral sucker punch as well. In the title story, for instance, a man returning from his wife's funeral replays a moment of weakness in which he wishes his wife dead so that he can finally get some sleep. He cannot rest, however, and is only able to repeat the terrible instant over and over: an exhausted and broken man doomed to chase his own tale to infinity.
The New York Times Book Review
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Give me a line. One night when I was sleeping a dream appeared to me. Wrong. A line. I woke up, got my socks on, shorts, put on my watch, strode down the hall, went to the toilet, had breakfast, dressed, or dressed and had breakfast, read a book first, made love to my wife, it's night, before I woke, I'm in bed, wife comes to bed, wife's about to come to bed, "Come to bed, wife," she does, love, sleep, wake up, toilet, dressed, breakfast, work. Forgot my watch. I call home and she says "It's right here where you left it," and I say "Where?" and she says "On the night table by your side of the bed where you always leave it when you go to sleep," and I say, I say what? I don't say "Ship it," since I'm only ten minutes away by car, I say "Please, I have tremendous difficulty without my watch, so imagine it on my wrist and I bet it'll be there," and she says "That's ridiculous," and I say "Hold it in your palm, close your eyes and imagine it on my left wrist, please," and she says "All right, little to lose," and next thing I know, thirty seconds at least, it's not on my wrist. I jump out of bed, toilet, dress, don't forget to shave, shave, downstairs, wake the kids, wake them, prepare their breakfast, no wife, just me and the kids, no woman, from downstairs "Kids, come on, I don't hear any rustling, get up, school, breakfast, I mean breakfast and then school, don't forget to wash your face and brush your teeth and hair, in whatever order you wish but the brushing with the two different kinds of brushes," still don't hear anything, "Kids, please, I don't want you to be late again, it's embarrassing to me and also makes me late for work," no reply or movement, I call their names, listen, go upstairs, door's open because I opened it when I woke them before, they're sleeping or pretending to or one's doing one and other the other, I let up the shade, should have done that when I first woke them, kiss their foreheads which I did before, muss their hair, rub their shoulders, except for the kissing I can do each of these at the same time since there's little space between their beds, room's very small and really only for one person but since their mother died two years ago they want to sleep in the same room, they stir, I say "School, up, face, teeth, hair, breakfast, long-sleeved shirts today, feels a bit chilly out," and my oldest, whose bed I'm sitting on now, says "I don't want to go to school," and I say "Heard that one before," and youngest says "I don't want to either," and I say "Come on, don't make me raise my you-know-what," and she says "What?" and I say "Long-sleeved shirts, bit chilly out," look in four of the five dresser drawers, two for pants, two for shirts, top mutual one's for their underclothes, pajamas, tights and socks, find two matching shirts and pants, put them on their beds, "Fresh socks and underclothes today, now up and out, you've five minutes to do everything I said to and get downstairs, starting now," and I look at my watch, or rather my wrist for my watch isn't on it, go into my room and look where I always put it when I go to sleep, night table on the right side of the bed, side Jane slept on and where I mostly sleep now, not there, yell out "Either of you kids see my watch?" no answer, go into their room, "Anyone see my watch?" blank stares,they're dressing now, look sleepy, both have their momma's long thick thighs and full tushy. "Don't forget to brush your teeth." "Brushed it when I went to sleep," oldest says, and youngest says "I did too." "Bad breath in the morning, even I smell it, so you want to make your mouth fresh. Do it for me, for yourselves, for your teachers and friends. But my watch, I can't leave here without it." "Maybe you left it downstairs by the record player, I see it there a lot," oldest says. I go downstairs, it's there, I put it in my wallet, my pocket, what did I mean "my wallet" and why not just put it on my wrist?-no time-put water on for coffee, bring their food to the table, make and pack their lunch, mix juice up and fill their thermoses and stick all this into their schoolbags. It'd be nice if I had a wife and she was pregnant-always wanted three-but not so pregnant where she couldn't help me get the kids off to school, just someone else around here, much as I love them, and for of course other reasons, phone rings, who can it be so early? I think. It's my second wife, at the airport, decided to take the redeye special rather than leave this morning, "If there's not too much traffic I should be home in an hour." "I'll wait for you but in the meantime take the kids to school. -Jane will be here in an hour," I say to them. "Good," both say, and youngest "She have her baby yet?" "If she had don't you think you would have heard about it? No, let me rephrase that and also apologize to you, since it wasn't nicely said. You would have known if she had the baby, sweetheart, since you two will be the first to know after me." "And the doctors and nurses of course," and I say "Of course," and take them to school, come home, Jane's there, we make love, Jane's there, we kiss, she's having coffee, Jane's there, I say "Hi, hello, you look exhausted, I missed you, I'm so horny for you, let's go upstairs or do it right here on the chair," "I'm ready," she says, Jane's there, she says when I say some of that "I'm feeling a little nauseous, maybe from all the traveling, so possibly tonight?" Jane's there, a photograph of her, on my night table, dead now five years, one of her nursing the youngest with the oldest standing beside her chair holding her hand, she was in the car of a friend when it ran off the road and hit a rock, on a train that hit a train and several people in her car died, flying home from an academic convention I'd told her it was futile going to since with the new baby and the one we wanted to have a year from now she wouldn 't be able to work for a couple of years, drowned while swimming, I swam out but couldn't reach her in time, in a boat that capsized, kids had life jackets on but were struggling in the water hysterically and seemed to be drowning, "Save the girls," she said, "I'll try to swim to shore," "You can do it?" because she was seven months pregnant, eight, weeks from delivery, "You really think it smart for me to get in this boat?" she'd said, "Just save the girls, I'll make it," I grabbed the girls, one in each arm, and started swimming to shore on my back, "Jane, are you near, are you swimming?" I yelled as I swam, "The girls, I'll be okay," got them to shore, looked quickly at the lake and saw little waves but not Jane, made sure the girls were breathing, said "Stay here, I'm going for Mom," looked for her, screamed her name, no one was around, no houses, cars, plane overhead, "Jane, Jane," jumped in the water and swam to where I think I last saw her, "Yes, dear, what is it? you must be having a bad dream," we're in bed, kids in the next room in theirs, "Should I turn on the light?" "Turn it on," I say, she does, "I'm all right now, don't worry, turn it off, the light's blinding," she does, I feel for her body in bed, it's not there, of course it's not, she died a year ago, longer, I hear my youngest daughter snoring in the next room, something to do with the adenoids, year ago doctor said she should have them removed, then Jane got very sick very quickly, weeks after she was diagnosed she died, baby she was carrying with her, nothing's been done about the girls' health except their semiannual teeth and annual eye examinations, both wear glasses, I wear them, Jane wore them, the baby in a few years probably would have worn them, it's morning, I wake up alone, it's an apartment, no kids, I go to the bathroom and wash up, do a few exercises, in front of the bathroom mirror and on the bedroom floor, shower, shave, brush my hair, I should get a haircut I think, I'll get one during lunch, put my watch on, dress, put my wallet and keys in my pants pockets, tie on but don't tie it tight at the neck, kitchen, breakfast, get the newspaper from in front of the front door first and read it while drinking coffee and eating toast, news is awful today, or maybe I'm not in the right mood for hard news, turn to the arts section, book by a beautiful young woman, or at least her photo makes her beautiful, hand sweeping back or holding in place her long dark hair, I fantasize getting up with her in the morning, her name's Jane, previous night our first time in bed, review's a good one, "witty, warm and wise," which is what they seem to say about most of these first novels by young women, I take the subway to work, she's on the subway reading the paper with one hand and other hand clutching the pole, I think should or shouldn't I?-absolutely don't pass the chance up, I push through some people between us and say "This is amazing-I mean, excuse me, Miss, but you are Jane so and so-I either forgot or didn't catch you last name so no offense meant with that 'so and so'-the writer, in this same paper, the book review today?" and she says "That's right," "Well, congratulations, a terriffc review," and she says "Thank you, and my stop's coming up," making a move for the door as the train pulls into the station, and I say "Mine too, and that's the truth-a coincidence rather than a ruse," and she says "I believe you, why wouldn't I?" and we get off and I say as we leave the station "Do you have to work too because the writing doesn't pay sufficiently, or maybe you have an early appointment with an agent or editor, or is that too personal a question and assumption, which if it is I'm sorry," and she says "No, it's not, and yes, I work," "Where, at what?" and she tells, we're on the street now and she says "Well, it's been nice talking but I'm a little late," and I say "You going this way?-me too, and again, coincidence, no ruse, Galaxy Imports, Hundred-eight Water," and after several seconds of silence while we walk-I've looked her over, she's sweet-looking rather than beautiful, nice shape and gait too-and when I don't know if I should say this, but what the hell, do, for lots to gain but not much to lose, "You have children, married, leave someone at home, or is it just you, or are all those again too personal as questions and assumptions?" and she says "Just me," and I say "Just me too," and then "How long it take to write the book?"-I've always been curious about that and the intricacies of it, and this time I won't wait till a book comes to the library or out in paperback before I get it, something I probably would never do despite the good review unless I had met you, I don't know why, money perhaps, laziness I presume," and she says "Maybe fiction isn't one of your main interests," and I say "But it is, reviews of them the first thing I turn to in the paper if the front page news isn't an event," tell her what I'm presently reading and have recently read, she tells me what she thinks of these books, more questions, answers and assumptions from both of us till we're in front of my office building and I say "Maybe you won't want to, I'm sure short time we've spoken you don't see much reason why you should, but would you like to meet for lunch today?-I was going to get a haircut but I can do that after work," "Sure, where?" we meet, have dinner the next day, make love the following week, I move into her apartment and sublet mine, hers is much nicer and she preferred it that way, marry, two girls, she dies, I meet and marry another woman named Jane, I don't look for them with that name, just the only kind I seem to find, she dies, another woman named Jane, Jane Jane Jane, my three Janes, I have four daughters altogether with them, the fourth is named Janine but after her mother dies I call her Jane, they grow up, move out, I retire from work, buy the cabin we always rented summers for a month and winterize it and move in there, the town's librarian's named Jane, I say "That's a coincidence, and this is no ruse, really, and of course it's one of the more common names, but my three wives were all named Jane," and tell her they all died of natural causes only and that I loved dearly each one, she's much younger than I, I'm attracted to her and now maybe even her name and like the selection of new books the library gets and go to it almost every day it's open, she invites me to her house for dinner, I invite her out to a movie, we hike up the one monadnock in the area and picnic there, make love, marry, I don't want another child but she does for she never had one so we try, it's a girl, I wake up, put my watch on, take it off, exercise, jog in the park a couple of miles, shower, coffee, dress, leave for school, leave for the office, leave for work, subway, bus or car, when I get there I see my watch is gone, must have come unclasped and slipped off without my knowing it, I buy a new one at lunchtime when I'd planned to get a haircut, same cheap kind, runs on time, come home from work, make several calls, none of the women I speak to seem interested in going out or staying in or really doing anything with me and this time each of them, perhaps because I'm so eager to see someone I persist in trying to persuade them, says it, wonder how I'm going to meet one for I'm getting close to middle age and might even be in it, since I'm not sure when it starts, and want to marry and have children or a child, maybe if I took an evening course at a continuing ed school, one that lots of relatively young women attend or at least hang around the school's bookshop or cafeteria, or one during my lunch hour: writing, painting-maybe the model, a painter or writer earning a few extra bucks, she's wearing only a bathrobe, walks around the room during her break looking at the students' work of her, says something to me about mine, "I have breasts as big and fat as that?-boy, are you fantasizing," or "It's quite good," or "I'd go easy on the shadowing and multi-layers of paint if I were you, but I should mind my own business," and I say "Thanks," or "No, thanks, do you paint?" she says yes, or no, is an actress, "Can't you tell by how well I do the modeling part? and can't get work right now and have to pay the bills and got bored sick with those temp jobs," and I say "But this doesn't pay as well, does it?" "Pays enough and gives me plenty of time to think and memorize scripts-what do you do?" and just as I'm about to say, art instructor calls out "Five minutes are up, model," she poses, alternates looking at the clock and me as she does, returns to talk during the next break, bathrobe now fastened at the top, so I can't as I want see in, which she might have caught me doing last time, I tell her what I do, she compliments me for not just having lunch on my lunch hour- "I admire people, no matter how old, who are always extending themselves, trying out new things and not getting stale, you know?" I say "Thanks, and you might think this presumptuous-after all, we've only spoken for two short breaks," and I pause, say "No, it's silly, besides wrong," and she says "What is?-go on, I might be so sweaty and smelly next break you might not want to continue this conversation, which I find a nice relief from the silent stony posing," and I ask if she'd like to have coffee after class, she says she has another class right after, "so another time maybe?" "When?" I say, she tells me when she'll be free, I say I'll still be working then, she says "Then when do you get off and I can probably meet you in front of your office building if it's not too late, though for something as long as dinner I'm not really interested in," I say, we meet, coffee, she has tea, go out, stay in, out, in, make love, her name's Jane, when she told me I said "That's remarkable," she asked why and I said "Oh, it's just that I guessed it moment I saw you there on the modeling platform," I call her J for short, move in, marry, children, bed, watch, getting them up, years, city, country, sickness, death, exercise, shower, shave, newspaper, no news, old news, turn to the reviews, my kids whom I kiss goodnight every night, when they're awake and later when they're sleeping.
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