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.

Drive

What if there is no one at the wheel.

What do you mean.

I mean we wonder so much about intent in this novel, about Kohler’s intentions versus Gass’s intentions and whose are primary and how we are meant to conflate or separate the two, but what if neither writer nor narrator is driving this book. What if the whole thing, the bloated bundle of pages, the complete collection of words, the entire enchilada, what if it is all simply symptom, cause’s effect, history’s inevitable utter vomit.

What must of necessity come back out when you stuff the world full to bursting with violence and optimism.

Of course then the question is: what next.

Loss in life

Loss in life: that’s what I mourn for; that’s what we all mourn for, all of us who have been touched by the fascism of the heart. It’s not having held what was in our hands to hold; not having felt the feelings we were promised by out parents, friends, and lovers; not having got the simple goods we were assured we had honestly earned and rightfully had coming.

— from The Tunnel by William Gass

You can read pages and pages of this book without connecting with a word of it, or without seeing the connections that might (or might not) be forming between the words, between them and you. It can feel very much like trying to see the entirety of the horizon from a single black jigsaw puzzle piece, plucked at random from a jar of thick sludge. Who is this guy, what is his story, what is he trying to tell me? Why do I sort of detest him even when I sometimes sort of think he’s maddeningly brilliant in the way he spins his words into meaningful prose?

For all its dispensing of plot and deconstruction of character, though, The Tunnel is still, at heart, a confessional, a book (weirdly) within the confessional tradition. And therefore begs us to allow ourselves to see ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, or, in this book, in his chair. Now and then, recognition glimmers. However murky. However much it sits uncomfortably in our laps.

It’s a perfect book for today, in its way. In our social media culture, how much of each other do we actually ever get to know? Whither the connections?

And breaking, and breaking

I’ve been reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for the latest Big Read at Conversational Reading. In large part because it’s one of those many books I’ve bought along the way with great intentions only to watch them slowly collect years’ worth of dust and dammit if I’m not going to read at least a few of them before I die.

“Reading” might be the wrong word though. The wrong term. It’s more like, more like drifting through it, like a photo of a vacation taken before the trip actually takes place. You see it but you don’t really get it. You don’t taste the ice cream. You don’t sweat the sun. You’re not at all there.

It really is a constant, claustrophobic reminder of human morality, of limitations on experience. A single trip is almost wasted on trying to grab it as it happens. While a return trip is only going to cost you.

Dearly.