October 14, 2019
Dear Abigail and Other Stories and Writing, Written are, arguably, two separate books. That’s what Amazon would say. Ostensibly the late wife in the former is Abigail and the man’s name is Philip while the late wife in the latter is Eleanor and the man’s name is Charles. In truth, these two collections are twin contributions to the canon of late-stage Dixon who has for years deeply and productively lingered on the single theme of writing loss.
The stories in both books catalogue Dixon’s grief and yearning in the wake of widowerhood and age. He knows what Donald Barthelme meant when he wrote “Revolves the stage machinery away from me, away from me.” Melancholy and anxiety tint the day-to-day doings of his overlapping stand-ins. He goes to the Y. He takes the dust cover off his typewriter. He puts it back on. He eats sandwiches and drinks coffee at diners. He talks to his daughter (or daughters). He wonders about getting a new girlfriend. He tries to write. He tries to sleep. He dreams about his wife. He writes it down. He remembers when he wrote it down the other day. He writes down remembering writing it down. These aren’t stories in the traditional sense (beginning, middle, end) but sites of feeling which you can visit like monuments. His sentences are organized into obelisks.
Dixon moves sentence by sentence (in paragraphs that go on for pages) from mundanity to misery to the balm of memory. But he doesn’t rely on anything as facile as “good” memories–picnics, rainbows, marching bands–rather, he draws comfort from remembering well. He remembers not only what “really” happened but also how he’s fictionalized these same moments in previous books. Underscoring the co-dependency of memory and imagination, Dixon comes into ever closer contact with what’s “really” real: the overwhelming desire that can only be articulated as obsession.
“Changed things around a little to a lot. The spit but not the soul kissing is new. Stout this time instead of the two of them in the novel clicking and then sipping from small snifters Israeli brandy her father had brought back from Israel that year. Another time, in one of the stories, only he having a juice glass of Armagnac.”
“So, I think while sitting there, newspaper now folded in half on my lap, gin and tonic on the side table to my right by the chair, is it a story? Going to go over that again? Then what is it, if it’s not a story, and I’m not saying it isn’t: a recounting through an isolated simple incident of some aspect of my life today, or an exercise, as I said before, and a little of its history, in perseverance to show the kind of person I am? I’m not sure of any of that, and surely I could have said that last sentence much simpler. Okay, then answer this: is this piece worth working on starting tomorrow morning and continuing working on the two to three weeks after that as a story? Because that’s all I do. Otherwise, the whole thing will have to be put away and probably eventually discarded, or thrown out in the next few days. Might be. A new kind of story, maybe, at least for me. We’ll see.”
The endless drive to reclassify and connect animates Dixon’s graphomania; he needs to “make it new” to keep it close. He tinkers with the facts of his past the same way you make small talk with someone you love who is leaving. Therefore, no detail in Dixon’s labyrinth of minutiae is small–the love undergirding each detail is so big. Said love not only animates Dixon’s writing but animates the late wife who reappears in the stunning story “All in All” for a talk with her husband.
“I’m in half your total literary output…which is an enormous amount. Many thousands of book pages in at least twenty books. You seem to have become more productive from the time we met and you’re now, since I died and the kids moved out of the house and you’re living alone and have no one to take care of but yourself and the cat, more productive than you’ve ever been. But let something else come in. Someone else. Anyone but me.”
A bit about the wife: she’s grounded. This is her second marriage. She loves her husband in a non-effusive way that he sometimes mistakes for hedging. She loves Russian literature and translates it. In fact, in “Once More” we read that the writer and his wife got married on the birthday of Anton Chekov, who most clearly demonstrates that he is Dixon’s precursor not in the stories but the letters. See if you recognize this tone.
“One must keep in training. My trip may be a trifle, the result of obstinacy, a whim, but consider and tell me what I lose by going. Time? Money? Comfort? My time is worth nothing, money I never have anyway, as for privations, I shall travel by carriage not more than 25 to 30 days…Suppose the trip gives me absolutely nothing, still won’t the whole journey yield at least two or three days that I shall remember all my life, with rapture or with bitterness? And so on, and so on. That’s how it is, sir.”
Elsewhere in the letters, Chekov writes “What is needed is continuous work, day and night, constant reading, study, will-power…Every hour counts….You will soon be thirty. It is time! I am waiting…We are all waiting…” Chekov’s example shows Dixon how to use writing’s constancy as a way to focus life, to literally fix it on the page. That said, while his words can fasten life in place, Dixon has no illusions: he knows he can’t make life better or use words to change anything.
His prose evokes a sense of ecstatic futility echoing Beckett. Here’s a folksy American version of “Fail again”: “Be honest. It’s going nowhere, can probably only go nowhere, and stinks too, and would be a waste of your time to try to make something out of it. So what am I going to do? What am I going to do? Ah, you’ll survive.”
He comes to relish failure and returns to it as compulsively as a kid wiggles a loose tooth. “So, want to try writing it again? What’s to lose, an hour or two? So much to gain, though. And longer you’re away from it, better chance you’ll forget it. But it won’t come out good. I know that. Listen, I’ve been doing this a long time. And these days, it’s almost all I do.” Many of his stories end with something along the lines of “But enough. I’ll probably tear all this up. It didn’t start off well and didn’t continue well either.”
Unlike Beckett, Dixon takes the “failure” of writing personally. It’s not just language or literature that’s lost but something that no amount of revision can repair; someone.
“Walks all the way home to West 75th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Just ‘West 75th Street.’ Stops at a bar on Sixth or Seventh Avenue for a beer but mainly to check the Manhattan phone directory there to see if she’s in it with the number she gave. One Eleanor Adler in the book—several ‘E. Adler’ listings—with the number she gave, at 425 Riverside Drive. Writes ‘425 RSD’ next to her name and phone number in his memo book. It’s in the Columbia University area—he knows because he went to a Christmas party last year at 405. Got off the subway at 116th Street and walked two blocks south on Broadway and then down to the Drive. But did she say she lived in Manhattan and that’s why he looked in that directory? Just assumed. Or he could work it into the conversation they had at the door. ‘If the place we meet at isn’t too far from my apartment in the Morningside Heights area.’ So what’s he getting at with all this? Going on eight pages and he isn’t sure. But he has to have some idea. He’s just bringing it back because he likes bringing it back, that’s about all. Especially the first night they met. The night they first met. And maybe also that it’s almost six years since she died and he can’t stop writing about her, though he’s tried, and that’s the story.”
There’s the Dixon trademark, the heartful straight-shot and the cerebral recursivity, the need to revise and the realization that the only revision that matters is impossible. The dramatic tension in his work flows from this fact: you can’t rewrite your wife back to life.
So, why write at all?
Freud suggested there’re two things: reality and us. Reality is made up of sex and death. Our two tools for surviving reality are love and work. When I say that Stephen Dixon is charting undiscovered territory in the inner world, mapping out the frontier where self-engrossment actually meets empathy (where you plumb your own conflicting feelings so thoroughly that you actually come into contact with whatever’s real about another person), what I mean is this: his stories trace and illuminate how sex turns to death which turns to work, which is the only lasting reservoir of love, resisting reality’s erosions. Absorbed in his mourning, Dixon gives us the gift of his wife’s life as it is now: in his mind and in the books.
Dear Abigail and Writing, Written are vital acts of preservation as well as the work of a master. I’ll leave you with what strikes me as the best passage from either book. In “They Used To,” the writer and his already sick wife pick up an order from their favorite restaurant and get ready to drive home.
“‘What’s wrong?’ he said, starting up the van to get the heat going. ‘It’s cold. I’m sad. I’m sick. I’m going to die. I can’t do anything for myself. Why am I still alive? You’re keeping me alive. I’m so useless. I’m sorry for you for having to put up with me and taking care of me every fucking day. Yes, fucking! I’m mad.’ He kissed her hands. ‘They’re warm,’ he said. ‘Warmer than mine, and I wore gloves. You’re all right. Want some soup? Black bean. And we’ll have a good dinner and wine. Not this one. It’s probably too cold by now for a red, but a fresh one off the rack. And it’s our lucky day. They had both fried oysters and brisket of beef.’ ‘Sure,’ she said; ‘sure. You should help me die and get yourself another wife.’ ‘Please don’t talk like that. You make it sadder than it should be. This is a good evening. We should be happy about a lot of things.’ ‘I know what you’re saying,’ she said. ‘The kids. That I still have my mind, though it’s not what it used to be. That I can still translate, and the cat’s sweet too. Okay. I’ll have soup later. Let’s go home and eat. Did you make sure to get the dip for the oysters? They can be a bit dry without it.’ ‘I got everything. Enough food for two days.’ ‘Good. Because I forgot to remind you, so I was worried. Home, my sweetheart?’ ‘Home.’”
Sentence by sentence Dixon’s fiction takes us from death to home as surely as life takes us day by day in the opposite direction.