By Stephen Dixon -- a double novel

February 02, 1997|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Gould: A Novel in Two Novels," by Stephen Dixon. Henry Holt and Company 227 pages. $24.

One hates to be pedantic, but I must point out that Mr. Dixon, a prolific and recognized author, has for some reason refused to use paragraphs in this book. Since a great deal of the book is dialogue, he must divide speech with "and she said, and he said" repeatedly, and, I must add, ad nauseam.

I don't mean he uses few paragraphs. He uses virtually no paragraphs. Almost the entire 227 pages is one long screed in which not change of scene, change of time, change of speaker, nor anything you may have become used to, is separated by the convention of an indentation. Why? I have no idea.

Does this remind one of William Faulkner? No. James Joyce? No. A car alarm that no one can shut off? Yes.

The book is about sex, lots of it. The main character, Gould Bookbinder (now there's a name for you), is the reason for many abortions. The sex act itself, described in crude offhand terms, is not illuminating. We are there at Gould's unlovely initiation, a witnessing I could have done without, and not because I'm squeamish.

Gould and partners talk during sex. Nothing like the repetitive and panting nonsense I'm used to, although admittedly I am not at my discursive best at such times. If, in prose, there ever was a need for a change of paragraph, it is at post-climactic time, but Dixon just keeps writing as if the return key were stuck. The paragraph is no great work of art, but it has a purpose. The eye can scan dialogue about as quickly as it can be spoken, with occasional stage directions. And if the sentences, or utterances, are close enough to current speech, you can start to hear the people and sense the tenor of the conversation. The drama starts to live, and a small miracle occurs - you forget you're reading. That most intimate theater, the one in your mind's eye, raises its curtain.

This never happens in Dixon's book because he makes it so difficult to keep track of who's talking and what's going on. He may consider this his style, an honoring by replication of the great Joyce. He may be trying out deep thoughts of dark metaphysical misery, whose expression is hampered by what everyone else finds necessary. But there's no reason to abandon the simpler readers, who are just as curious about their misery as everyone else.

There is a story, but it's difficult to follow. The timing is sketchy and the descriptions are thrown here and there. If you finish the first "novel" you come to the second. (Your eyes are nearly ruined, of course. )

Gould is now with the eponymous woman Evangeline. He alternatively rhapsodizes and trashes women in his thoughts. His callow stupidity is celebrated as if it told us something about the vacuous times we inhabit.

But the narration of brutal or selfish sex needs more skill than perhaps any other subject. A writer must know exactly why he has chosen this bad thing. The thoughts that come from the experience and the experience that come from the thoughts have to argue why they are lauded or condemned. This book fails to convince that the author has concluded anything to pass on to us. Saddest is the dim hint that Dixon wants to celebrate himself as an obtuse but gifted rebel against clarity.

Dixon has written about modern American violence and disillusion in this same Joycean manner before. His novels "Frog" and "Interstate" were lauded for their stylistic departures. But I think that's the problem. This style seeks to show the confusions and spiritual ataxia of the characters through itself, rather than in what it describes.

Joyce wrote against an age and a culture cemented by its moral and religious absolutes. That age no longer exists. The background today is disorganization and cacophony. Against these, what is needed is clarity. And, last, if any writing is supposed to be Joycean, it must have the comic relief and mastery of silliness strewn throughout the Irish soul, or even the non-Irish soul. Dixon might find this and add it to his next work to good effect.

Jeff Danziger, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, wrote the novel "Rising Like the Tucson" in 1992. He was editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News for three years and the Christian Science Monitor for nine.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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