The most frequent terms used to characterize the short fiction of Stephen Dixon are “experimental,” “fabulous,” “quirky,” and “tour de force.” Previous writers with whom he has been compared include Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Certainly after reading the sixty stories in this collection of previously published works, one is aware of having visited a fantastic world that, like other worlds created in the best of fabulous fiction, seems both alien and familiar at once. In his fourteen previous novels and short-story collections, Dixon, who also teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has quietly gone about the business of experimenting with a wide range of narrative devices and fictional techniques. Yet the problem with many of his stories is that, as imaginative and inventive as they may be, they largely seem to be only that—bloodless experiments with devices and techniques rather than real human events.
Many of Dixon’s stories are experiments with traditional narrative structures. For example, “Man of Letters” makes use of the epistolary form: A man named Newt, who features in a number of Dixon stories, writes a series of letters to a woman he has been seeing. Although he begins the first letter with the sentence, “I don’t want to see you anymore,” by the time he has verbally examined the relationship and justified his decision by writing a whole stack of letters, he ends by saying, “No matter what I’ll be seeing you Friday night.” It is as if the very act of writing has so self-consciously engaged the protagonist that he cannot state his feelings; he is busy trying to impress instead of saying simply what he wants to express. Many of Dixon’s stories convey this sense of becoming bogged down in verbal and narrative cleverness and thus never quite expressing a truly human experience.
A more radical narrative device is attempted in the story “14 Stories,” in which a man’s attempt to commit suicide is presented as a kind of comically botched job, affecting a number of people around him. The story begins with a graphic description of the bullet smashing the character’s teeth, leaving his head through the back of the jaw, and then crashing through a window in his hotel room. As the story focuses on the man’s efforts to get help, it simultaneously describes the reactions of a young boy on the roof, at whose feet the bullet finally rests, and a chambermaid who discovers the body and, at the end of the story, must clean up the bloody room. Although such an emphasis on characters on the fringes of a central drama is a common short-story technique, in Dixon’s treatment, the reader remains uninvolved in either the central tragedy or its incidental ramifications for other characters.
In many of Dixon’s stories, characters try to avoid coming to terms with tragedy. In “The Signing,” for example, a man’s wife dies. As he leaves the hospital room, a nurse asks him about arrangements for the body. He tells her to burn it or to give it to science, for he wants only to be as far away from the hospital as he can. As he catches a bus to escape, a security guard follows him to try to obtain a necessary signature. Not only does he refuse to return, but he also throws away the wristwatch his wife gave him, says that he is going to let their car rot in the street, and takes off the clothes she bought for him and throws them out the bus window. By wanting to destroy everything connected with his wife, the protagonist seems at the same time to be expressing a grief that goes beyond ordinary responses and to be rejecting grief by completely obliterating its source. It is not unusual in Dixon’s stories for characters to act as if they do not care about the relationships in which they are involved.
A number of male protagonists in Dixon’s stories move in and out of relationships in such passive ways that all relationships seem to be no more than tentative and transitory. In “Last May,” Bud, another recurring Dixon male protagonist, meets a woman while he is visiting his dying father in a hospital where the woman’s mother is also a patient. A scene in which the two make love in Bud’s father’s hospital room is described in the same unfeeling way that Bud’s care for his father is described. After the death of the two parents, Bud visits the woman at her home, but he does not feel the same way about her and never calls her again. When she comes and requests an explanation for his failure to call, he says that he has none. In the last sentence of the story, she says, “All right, then that’s it, then I’m leaving.” With no response from Bud, who cannot continue with the relationship outside the context of hospitals and death, she leaves.
The transitory nature of relationships reaches its ultimate expression in the story “Love Has Its Own Action,” in which the male protagonist meets a woman, begins a relationship, then ends it when he meets another woman, whom he marries, after which he begins an affair with another woman. When his wife has a child, he begins a relationship with the nurse who assisted in the delivery and runs away with...