Better late than never: a slightly under-cooked review of His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon

Author’s Note

Even by my limited to non-existent standards, this is not exactly a timely post.

To explain: once upon a time I pitched a review of Stephen Dixon’s latest novel, His Wife Leaves Him, to a certain online publication for which I have a lot of respect, to which I hoped to contribute, because, fighting the good fight, and all that. Time never worked out in the review’s favor: there was a significant delay between when I pitched the review and when review copies of the book were made available. And then there was the time spent reading the book and writing up the initial draft of the review. And then there was the time spent waiting for feedback to come in from the review’s editor; the feedback was excellent and the editor neatly called me out on what I was doing with the review and how it could stand to be improved. I can’t thank the editor enough for that feedback; but, unfortunately, between the time I submitted the original review and the time the feedback reached my inbox, I’d picked up another project that was basically the exact opposite of a writing project, a project that was sucking up every ounce of free time and energy for an exciting cause. Responding to the review feedback would have required a significant investment of time and energy because I would have needed to have dived back into the book and into the review itself to do justice to the feedback I was given. Priorities collided. I dropped the review. Next thing I knew it was Christmas. Next thing I new it was 2014. Next thing I knew it was June 2014 and I thought about the review and the fact that it was June 2014 and I started hyperventilating in my brain. Out of curiosity this last week I reached out to the review editor to apologize for dropping the ball and to confirm my suspicion that we were past all the sell-by dates on this thing. In the time that had passed she had moved on from the publication, and, well, that’s that.

Looking back, it probably makes sense that this was, I shouldn’t say a bad choice for a subject to pitch for that publication, but maybe more of a slightly misguided choice, a case of optimistic hopes getting the better of rational decision making. Something. The challenge with the piece that I turned in was that it tried to be a little bit too Internet-clever; and while there was and is enthusiasm in spades for the book and the author, there may have lacked a certain critical depth or nuance of insight into the subject to make it really shine as a review that would motivate readerships and discussions like I’d originally ideally hoped to provoke. I love the book and I love the author and I want you to love the book and the author as well and I’m not sure I found the right voice or the right insights to properly communicate that fact and that passion and the importance of the novel. For all my words, there just wasn’t enough there, really.

In short, I’d written a pretty good blog post, not a really great book review. Which, frankly, I think, be it 2005 or 2014, is perfectly fine, even a little noble.* Because passion and substance are hardly mutually exclusive, and, it might be said, might even depend on each other, a little bit, and by stumbling our way through one we can find our way to the other, and failed attempts and false starts are still superior to empty coughs and blank pages.

So with that in mind I’m sharing a lightly cleaned up version of the original review as I submitted it. I took some of the feedback and rejected other bits of the feedback, depending on how the breeze was passing through my office in that second; you’d be forgiven for not taking this as seriously as I once would have liked you to have. Selfishly, I’d like to close the book on a piece of writing I was beyond thrilled to attempt, regardless of how close to its final form I ever got it; I need to kick this weight off my mind’s back. I don’t write enough these days to completely write it off. And, let’s face it, this probably isn’t the last I’ll write about Stephen Dixon’s work, and it’s certainly not the last I’ll read of his work, but I need to find a better headspace in which to do it if what’s in my head is really going to sync up with what’s in my heart and my gut.

Optimistically, though, as well, there is the hope that the passion I hope you’ll find below might transfer, that the love I have and had for the book can still mean something, itself, even this far out of date and out of context. And, who knows, what’s next.

* – I can somewhat proudly say I’ve written both at this point in what passes for my (unpaid, limited, impassioned) writing career; in both cases I’ve probably benefited more, personally, from the act of writing than the publication of the end results of those efforts. As for you, the reader: I literally don’t know. I’d like to think I’ve made someone somewhere buy a book they went on to like or feel challenged by, I’d like to think I’ve provoked a laugh or two or a thought or three along the way, but it’s honestly a little hard to tell, especially when there isn’t a comment section attached to the piece in question. Or when it’s suddenly 2014 and what comments sections there are are either the domains of, at best, tumbleweeds, at worst, scum and villainy. Never mind that, being 2014, the odds of anything getting read anywhere are pretty much completely dismal. Which sounds misanthropic, hand-wringing, self-pitying. Sure. But ask me again tomorrow. And/or again tomorrow’s tomorrow. I may answer the same way. Or.

Or.

—-

His Wife Leaves Him
Stephen Dixon
Fantagraphics Books

I.

Life is too short to repeat yourself: for what I feel is my decent, personal take on who Stephen Dixon is and what he does, go here to read my review of his 2010 story collection, What Is All This? (If you haven’t read Dixon yet, either, you might start with that book, too; though, spoiler alert, I think the subject of the review below is excellent, one of the author’s best, This? offers a better in-the-round portrait of Dixon’s extensive writing career.) Pretend there’s a big roman numeral I. at the top of that review and then when you’re done (or when you’ve come up from This? for air) come back here to pick up with part

II.

two, in which I discuss His Wife Leaves Him, Dixon’s latest novel, a meditation in portrait form on life and death, love, anger, and contemplation, a book I might consider his masterwork if my heart weren’t already with his earlier Interstate. Of course, it’s true, that you’ll always remember your first, but also for me, in this case, with these two books, there’s a two-sides-of-one-story thing happening, Interstate being the yin to the yang of Wife, in which, in Wife, the nightmare in question is made real, inescapable and sad.

(Except, not. Of course.)

Wife is the story of Martin Samuels and his wife Gwendolyn, who passes away following a pair of strokes and lengthy periods of harrowing at-home recovery. Through an extended, musical opening paragraph—the literary equivalent of climbing an entire range of mountains in one shot—Martin cares for and rages against Gwendolyn and their circumstances, holds himself together through the funeral and the later memorial alongside their two grown daughters, while beginning to remember their life together. Following that opening paragraph (39 pages) is a second paragraph (47 pages) that maps, through a rapid succession of dreams, the emotional terrain of a man in grief. Where dreams, in novels, can sometimes feel like cheap cheats, Dixon uses them to set an elegiac tone for whole swaths of Martin’s life, a subtle counter-melody to the remainder of the specific recollections that follow, as the novel travels from memory to memory, Martin’s regrets and compulsions pursuing him throughout the story, before he finally leaves his bedroom, to face what comes next. It’s complexly emotional reading, happy and sad, oddly funny and generally apolitical and entirely sincere, with little to no irony separating the specificness of the book from the specificness of our own stories and lives: at some point, we all have to make ourselves that final, first cup of coffee.

Dixon’s language is chewy, tasty in a way I’d like to think William Gass would appreciate. (Though, Dixon’s is more big-scoop-of-vanilla, Gass’s more the-entire-sundae-toppings-bar-at-once.) That language and Dixon’s way with moments are what keep me coming back to his work, time after time. There’s a free rhythm to his dialogue and description that makes his work feel more like a steady series of inhalations and exhalations than a breathless run through thin air. He has a way with turning scenes on a dime, precisely shaking a sequence’s cadence to maximize effect and maintain interest, as with the explosion of anger that follows the unfortunate piss-related incident that precedes Gwen’s death:

Without looking at her, he says “I need a minute to myself, but don’t worry, I’ll eventually take care of you,” and goes into the kitchen and drinks a glass of water and feels like throwing the glass into the sink but puts it down and bangs the top of the washing machine with his fist and yells “God-all-fucking-mighty, what am I going to do with you? I wish you’d die, already, die, already, and leave me in fucking peace.” Then he thinks “Oh, no. I hope she didn’t hear me; it’s the worst thing I’ve ever said.”

He follows the winding trains of thought that connect passages:

Ah, why’s he speculating on something that didn’t happen? Because it’s interesting, going through all the possibilities that could have happened and then zeroing in on what actually did. And what the hell else he’s got to do now? And he likes the idea of, well…of, that he was going to meet and get to know her no matter what.

And he finds poignance and meaning in his flowing streams of dialogue:

“…And she has a wonderful disposition, which is not looks, but helps. Soft, calm, as is her voice.” “How old is she?” and he told him and Manny said “Lots of years between you two, but that’s all right. She’ll take care of you in your old age.”

That said, the subject matter is often grim. His Wife Leaves Him is preoccupied with the emotional and physical truths of caring for the sick, of dealing with one’s own advancing age. The frequent references to piss and shit reflect the recurring difficulties of difficult love, of dealing with failings, both your own and of others. It’s an uncomfortable and compelling contrast to the simpler, more joyous aspects of meeting someone and spending a life with them, of losing them and having to figure out what to do next.

I think Dixon’s heart lies with the short story more than the novel; or, rather, with the idea of story, period, length be damned. In ramping up to this review, and in my steady progress toward reading everything of his I can get my hands on, I read both 30, his 1999 “novel,” and Story of a Story and Other Stories: A Novel. They both evince Dixon’s seemingly semi-intentional interest in mucking about with form. They were both enjoyable yet frustrating reads, with little narrative momentum to propel the reader from chapter to chapter or page to page. The stakes, as they are, can feel a bit low. It’s a common thread to Dixon’s novels, or, again, “novels.” They can at times feel like bundles of stories that just happen to have fallen between the same cover pages, or like stories that grew past the sizes any magazine or anthology could neatly contain. Historically, Dixon has either chosen to concern himself with this issue or to seem to ignore it completely; for example, I. and End of I. seem to choose not to, while Frog addresses it through masterful sequencing, Interstate offers its own fantastic solution. The story of Wife provides a pure sort of synthesis of these goals and interests, with its simply connected flow of memories and moments offering perhaps one ideal form of what a Dixon novel might look like, were he to choose one solution and stick with it. That said, I’m glad he hasn’t, and that he probably won’t. The restless variations he finds within what are undeniably his paragraphs and sentences serve to further make any book or story of his a new opportunity for the reader, for me, to see the form from a fresh vantage point.

His Wife Leaves Him most recalls Interstate in its ending. In the closing chapter of Interstate, Dixon pulls immense tension from the reversal of the seven-times-repeated nightmare that preceded it. In Interstate, everything is horrible, until it actually isn’t. That “happy” ending is as emotionally fraught as the rest of the novel. With Wife, the worst really does come to pass, the death of a loved one; nothing, no memory or dream, can reverse that. The final, understated pages demand sober contemplation.

And, here, I break in, some eight to ten months after I originally handed in this review, and I’ll forgive you if you choose to break away at this point; we’ll meet again. I’ll say that the rest of the review dealt with the idea of endings; the one point I’ll hold on to here (“As I said, I think asserting the idea that Dixon could have a single masterwork would be to do him a disservice,”) is, I think, a good point, but, maybe, it’s where the review broke down a bit for me, and where I couldn’t really find the words to make critical stuff of the emotional and intellectual experience of reading and processing so much of a single writer’s back catalogue. Like I said, this isn’t political writing, and while it’s deeply substantial, it’s the stuff of internal importance; Dixon isn’t here to hold a mirror to society and effect change or anything like that, he’s here to make us feel a thing or two, to participate in story, and, dammit, that’s enough. But what do I say about that? I don’t know. It’s what gives me years-erasing writer’s block, that realization that given a really great piece of work, I literally sometimes have no idea how to verbally respond to it without coming off like an attention-seeking dork. And so then. I didn’t really know how to end this review. Now, months and months later, free from what once passed for obligation, I can say that I don’t have to end this review. I think it’s enough to say that Dixon nails his endings but that endings are only ever beginnings. Or some crap like that. I’m lazy. I frustrate myself. I don’t know. We carry on. We meet again.

Please read this book.

In partial defense of over-writing; or, some thoughts, belated, on The American Girl

So, having finally shared my thoughts about The Invisible Bridge last week (no? not last week? not even close? time? what?) I can now offer some previously promised (somewhere, sometime) comparison-thoughts to another book that I believe takes a more successfully luxuriant, indulgent bath in a tub of warm overwriting, The American Girl, by Monika Fagerholm, as translated into English from the original Swedish by Katarina E. Tucker, and published by Other Press. First, I admit I read this book before I read Bridge, and I read it to read it, not to report on it, so with a lack of notes and underlining, I’m a bit rusty with regards to the particulars, but the now long-held impression I’ve been left with is of a book that is hardly afraid to shout, to stand up on the table and wave its hands over its head and kick your plate aside and spill the wine, a book that will remind you that it is a book full of words that are active and full of life and energy and desire and passion for the story they are creating; this book, in other words, foregrounds its writing-as-writing-to-be-read-as-writing in (to me) a more satisfying fashion than Bridge, the metaphorical brushstrokes, in Girl, being more playful, energetic, dreamy-eyed, sparkly, multidirectional–or, what the hell, rather pleasantly fucking excited to make your acquaintance–than Bridge, which, to my mind, were far more plentiful, detailed, precise, or perhaps studied, classical somehow, finely sculpted in the service of creating a denser, heavier whole, a thicker product, a sturdy thing designed to stand strong against the winds of the ages, while yet still in the current moment offering an ultimately more dull final image than Fagerholm’s what-exactly-was-that-anyway Finland murder mystery (-ish), chock full of holes and alleys and edges and folds and frays. (Different goals, different means, of course.) To be fair, Girl starts beautiful but also a bit rough, can feel sort of ridiculously disorienting at first. It took me several attempts to get into it, to find the rhythms and the paths I could stick with, I think I read the first fifty pages or so about three times before I broke through and into the rest of the book. And even when I did go with it, I wasn’t always with it, but I wanted it enough, there was enough going on so that even when it felt like it was dragging or going off in some weird purposeless or incomprehensible direction, the whole way through I still wanted to see where it was going, to be taken somewhere, to take a little part in taking apart this book’s little world. When I speak of over-writing I think I speak specifically in part of a certain quantity of repetition, the sort that, being as of now about 188 pages into Imperial, reminds me of certain tics of William Vollmann’s, key lines that come back like an idée fixe in a piece of music. This isn’t a particularly post-modern thing, whatever that means anymore, though I would hazard a feeling that the narrative is itself a bit aware of itself, from time to time, or at least that it is a little more cognizant of the fact that there is a foreground to be foregrounded; the artifice of the work is as much the work as the thoughts, ideas, stories it communicates, and I took greater (if not perfectly great) pleasure in it, for it.

I don’t want to draw much more comparison between the two books than I’ve already done, and I hope this serves less as a anti-Bridge commentary and more as a pro-Girl essay; it is an exciting book, and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to saying more about it. (And there’s plenty more to be said, particularly in light of recent Franzenfreudeania, and all the accompanying baggage that comes along with that, which I won’t go deeply into, but will suggest that yes, this is a book about (in part) young girls by a female author that deserves wider readership by both dudes and chicks.) This book, enjoyable entirely as a stand-alone tale, is the first book of a two-part story; should I learn that the second book were being translated into English, I would likely take the time to re-read this first book with the goal of enhancing my enjoyment and understanding of both books. Which, well, high praise.

Thoughts on Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr

First Up, the Short Version

I really liked Joshua Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me; I reviewed it at The Collagist last year. Since then, he has published his second novel, Termite Parade, which I also really liked. It’s a different kind of book, though certainly written by the same author with the same interests. They’re both well-written books, quick but impactful, and I don’t mind recommending either of them to you if you’re looking for a good book to read.

And Then, the More Vaguely Review-like Version

With his second novel, Termite Parade, Joshua Mohr sounds the depths of the space between human decency and indecency; he does so to striking, engaging effect. It’s a project he began in his fine first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, which offered, in part, a heart-felt, grimly quirky look at a to-some-degree victimized childhood. Termite Parade stands as World’s wicked step-brother, compressing more complexity into a leaner, meaner package. Here, Mohr focuses on the wholly present-tense process of pain and its making. That people are dumb is no surprise, and it won’t shock anybody to learn that we do terrible things to each other: we’ve pretty much made a full-time job of making life more complex for each other than, strictly speaking, it really needs to be. By wrestling with the notion that, even though we can be the biggest tools going, people can still come off as redeemable is where Mohr gives his novel its literary-quality staying power.

The story is told by a core cast of three characters. These include Mired, who describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore;” her boyfriend Derek, an auto mechanic who is “not the sort of guy who waxes philosophical or blubbers about the way his life ends up”; and Derek’s twin brother Frank, “an aspiring filmmaker” and “mastermind behind The Unveiled Animal, which will soon be a brand name synonymous with cinema.” The plot is sparked by a stark and, frankly, at least to this reader, surprisingly shocking act of violence, with each character relating his or her self-centered, questionable, conflicting view of the story.

(And, now, here’s the kind of parenthetical aside I doubt I would have gotten away with had this actually become a review for a real publication: I say “surprisingly shocking” up there because this book, Mohr’s book, was one of my rebound books from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I tried and failed to read earlier this year. The thing here being that the Bolaño book featured this whole section about violence done against women that’s meant to be this gut-shredding walk through misery but which I found sort of dull and uninspired, which, before I even go and put a period anywhere near this sentence, let me go ahead and clarify or re-clarify that I in no way support or tolerate the idea of violence against women and that my complaints about the book 2666 are solely to do with the book 2666 and the fact that I thought it kind of did it all wrong; and endless (or at times at least it felt endless) catalog of the results of horrible activity which frequently used the same damn sentences over and over again did little to inspire me to horrific contemplation of the state of mankind, or whatever, any more so than a glance at the morning paper would do. You can tell me that there’s some nonsense out there or you can show me that there’s some nonsense or you can make me feel the existence of that nonsense in my bones and 2666 went for the former, in my opinion. Whereas–and here’s the kind of statement that’s likely to be get me in more trouble than it’s worth but what the hell–Termite Parade actually showed me an act of violence and made me feel it in my bones in a totally simple, totally straight-forward way, a way which, alone, makes me think that Termite Parade might actually be a better book? Question mark? At least it is to me. At least to me, being a guy who, in a scant page or so, saw some nonsense go down, and could not for a second deny the fact that that nonsense is the stuff of which, you know, people are actually capable of? It makes you confront something about yourself, is what I’m saying. 2666 does too but not in the same way. Not for me. It’s totally disingenuous of me to couch all this language in “for me” and it’s also disingenuous of me to be trash-talking a book I gave up reading months ago and which I gave up much caring about a few fewer months ago but hey. This is how I blog now? Question mark?)

In part, this (ahem, “this” referring here to the multiple-narrator method through which the story of Termite Parade is told) serves to develop a portrait of Derek and Mired’s toxic relationship; as Derek puts it, “there was barely trust between Mired and me, and the trust we did have was heavy and rundown, a burden we lugged behind us like concrete shadows.” What would read as too thin (by which I believe I mean, too dull, or too standard, or just too uninteresting on its own to warrant an entire book for the telling) finds itself shaken up nicely by Frank, the story’s primary unbalancing agent, its vocal note of discord. His film project, the sort of idea likely smoked up by most modern-day film students (or, really, anybody with a cell phone camera and a head full of The Real World re-runs), is a sort of back-to-basics cinema vérité:

It revolved around the notion that the cinema needs to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings. There needed to be a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries. And with the blazing popularity of reality TV that developed in the late 1990s and early millennium, it seemed I might really be on to something. The public wasn’t craving actors anymore, but people in real situations, real people who weren’t pretending to feel sadness and anger and letdown but were learning to navigate the tangles and ignominies of everyday life.

Suffice it to say that reality is never enough and, given a spoonful of the stuff, Frank contrives to turn it into a glossy jar full of the quote-unquote stuff. Here’s where Derek comes to find himself standing at the mid-point between actual reality and what passes for it in front of a camera.

The story gains momentum as the twining plot lines spiral toward their collision. Mohr keeps a light touch through the proceedings, easing up a bit on the “Push Here for Stylistic Quirks” button he pressed more than once in his debut novel (which, I should note, never bothered me, but I feel compelled to, at least once, blatantly point out, because it’s likely to bug somebody). The whole thing kind of comes to revolve around notions of blame, this quirks-versus-not-quirks thing. Where hallucinations and memories might have served as big red EXIT signs for any sense of culpability on the part of the narrator of Some Things, there’s nothing equivalent in Parade; suffering, guilt, these are things people do to other people and themselves. A brief sequence of memories involving the boys’ father serves to underscore the fact that these are people of their own making. What happens to us does happen to us, yes, but we ultimately are how we react.

Get past the terrible (to be quite honest) cover art (which, to be fair, a cursory review of the artist’s Web site shows it’s not the execution but the concept behind the art that’s to blame) and the reader–once, me, and, perhaps, someday, you–will find a bracing story of complicity, of the misery we make for others and ourselves. Mohr tells the story with a stylistic terseness that keeps the proceedings snappy, and, without ever drawing answers, at least sketches in the idea that the answers are worth looking for, somewhere in the darker values. As one character puts it, after an awful lot of awful things happen: “We could figure things out, if you gave us enough time.”

Addendum

Update to note, I just noticed the book comes out in July. (It’s June, if you’re curious.) Because I read the book earlier this year. And I wrote most of this post a while ago. Consummate professional that I am, I took all this and translated it into an over-riding sense that I was late to the game on the book. Like, oh, man, nobody’s going to care anymore! Oh no! When I’m now safely ahead of the timeline. By, like, a while. Oh no! Nobody is prepared to care yet! I’d say I feel like a jerk but I don’t, because it’s still a good book and you should still look it up when you have the chance. Anyways.