Stephen Dixon's '30' -- 'enough writing for a lifetime'

May 16, 1999|By Alane Salierno Mason | By Alane Salierno Mason,Special to the Sun

"30: Pieces of a Novel," by Stephen Dixon. Henry Holt & Co. 672 pages. $30.

What defines a writer's writer? Critical acclaim without by popular recognition? Prolific output that evades easy categorization? A great reputation as a teacher of writing? Something in the work? On each of these counts, Stephen Dixon, author of 20 short story collections and novels -- two of which, "Frog" (1991) and "Interstate" (1994) were finalists for the National Book Award -- seems to qualify.

His new novel, "30: Pieces of a Novel," has had a subtitle only a writer could love, particularly a writer despairing of turning his or her own "pieces" into a whole. It is the kind of subtitle that makes an editor's hair stand on end. Like "fragments" or "notes," such modest phrasing is usually a kind of apology, meaning that an author set out to do one thing, collapsed of exhaustion somewhere before the finish, but still wants to pay homage to the original idea. Or else that the author is struggling with the incongruity between what the publisher expects and what he or she is delivering, and has no editor to help pull or push the two closer together.

A writer can still love such a book, a book that confesses itself as a work in progress, because it asks so many interesting questions of minimal interest to most non-writers: What is a novel, really? What is fiction for? How far can you push realism into the most mundane corners of the everyday?

Even in "pieces" a writer like Stephen Dixon can expand fiction's territory. He can capture the exact cadence and pitch of the speech of characters who can't stop talking, the maddening tedium of age or illness or the excrutiating moment that goes on forever, the irritation of going up and down in an apartment building elevator for quarters when the laundry room is in the basement. The destructive shifts in mood that take place in the middle of the most ordinary interactions. The unsatisfied desires and unrealized fantasies. The absence of drama in life that has its own dramatic intensity.

"30" is a kind of fragmented biography of Gould Bookbinder, a writer who lives and teaches in Baltimore, had a moderately unhappy childhood and young adulthood in New York, spends summers in Maine, has two young daughters, a wife with a debilitating illness that seems to be multiple sclerosis and a mother becoming senile. Bookbinder is sensitive and dutiful and sometimes a bastard.

It is a real achievement of the book that he emerges so vividly as a character one wants to talk back to the page, tell him when he's out of line, the way some people talk back to the TV screen. Other characters say of him that he talks too much, and so does the narrative voice that reveals him; the seeming obliviousness of this voice to the idea that a reader might ever get bored or impatient has its own charm, as similarly oblivious chatty people sometimes do in real life, but not for long.

After too much time with Bookbinder, one longs for a break with a terse Vermonter, for the relief of an unexamined life. Does one really need to learn three times the manner in which Bookbinder washes his genitals? It does seem to exceed the boundaries of charm when after 29 "pieces" amounting to 400 pages, the last chapter of the book promising "Ends" goes on for nearly another 300 pages of what don't seem really to be alternative endings, nor clearly distinguishable in form from the "pieces" that went before, but odds & ends of stories. So that when in the last section Bookbinder reflects that "for one man he's done more than enough writing for a lifetime, if that's to be gauged by the number of pages, or more than the most ardent reader of a writer would ever want to read," one is not moved, at that moment, to argue with him.

On the other hand, the full-bloodedness of a Bookbinder, the humanity of his wife and mother, the vividness of anecdotes and sparks of energy that fly from the most banal of sticks rubbed together, makes one wish that "30" had developed into a novel for real.

It could have been a truly powerful one. The chapters dealing with the wife's illness and the mother's deterioration are profoundly moving -- Dixon has a gift for the depiction of human frailty. The story of the time the boy Bookbinder saw his father from a distance on the street is a beauty, and there are others.

Instead of allowing postmodernism to give highbrow justification to the basic writerly conceit of presenting a 700 page book-in-pieces, maybe a book publisher, if not a Bookbinder, should have separated out a book of stories and a novel, and to bind the latter, persuaded Mr. Dixon to use scissors and needle and thread.

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton & Co. She recently had an essay on Jerusalem published in Commonweal, is working on a new translation of "Conversazione in Sicilia" by Italian anti-Fascist author Elio Vittorini, and has an article forthcoming in the July issue of Vanity Fair.

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