The Emperor's New Clothes, II
Notes: This was printed as "The Emporer's (sic) New Clothes," which, of course, made ME feel like a real literate guy who writes Englitch good. Yeah. A funny story behind this one: originally, I was writing all three pieces more or less simultaneously. A certain large Northwestern paper's Book Editor assigned me this book (odd, considering one of the clips I sent her had my slam of BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1994, from the Washington Post). She should have known better. But, as I took it, she wanted to schmooze with the author -- a not-unknown vice of book page editors -- and this review appalled her. APPALLED her! She told me that I didn't know anything about reviewing, etc. and sniffed that SHE didn't feel that she had to be bothered troubling with "free-lancers." (The last term spoken in an inflection usually reserved for leprosy and pus-filled sores -- eeeeeeeeeeew!) "Fine," quoth I. "Just send me my kill fee and I'll take it elsewhere." "KILL FEE!!??" screeched she. "We don't PAY kill fees!"
I sent a nice little letter to her editor. A week later, a check for $50 arrived with the annotation "KILL FEE." I may be the only writer to ever get a kill fee from said paper.
Published in the Santa Fe Sun, August 1995 Issue. (giggle, giggle).
by Hart Williams (c) 1995
Dixon evidently feels himself above the tedious convention of the paragraph, and dispenses with it here. In the first sixty-nine pages, there are eighteen paragraphs, with twelve coming in the first seventeen pages.
INTERSTATE, by Stephen Dixon, Henry Holt & Co., 374 pp., $25.
Stephen Dixon teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He has twice been awarded NEA Fellowships, and once a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. For thirty years, he has been writing short stories, and his awards include three O. Henry Prizes and one Pushcart Prize. He has been included in THE YEAR'S BEST SHORT STORIES, and been heaped with, in the words of his publicist, "tons of praise." Dixon's last novel, FROG, was a finalist for both the National Book and PEN/Faulkner Awards.
Surely, his students must feel awed in the presence of such formidable literary firepower, and Dixon's latest novel, INTERSTATE, should be nothing short of brilliant. And, it might be considered brilliant, save for some few small reservations.
INTERSTATE is, in the words of the press release, "an interrelated sequence of eight narratives." This is, indeed, true, but a novel? No: INTERSTATE is a collection of eight short stories revolving around one incident -- the senseless shooting of a man's daughter in "what's a minivan." That it is not a novel is but a slight reservation, not entirely detracting from the novel's brilliance.
Each "narrative" is written in stream-of-consciousness format, in present tense. Dixon evidently feels himself above the tedious convention of the paragraph, and dispenses with it here. In the first sixty-nine pages, there are eighteen paragraphs, with twelve coming in the first seventeen pages. Thereafter, the average goes down considerably. Still, while paragraphs are useful in understanding a book, Dixon's brilliance must surely make up for this small reservation.
Mark Twain wrote: "[The] rules governing literary art ... require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discernible meaning ...." ("Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"), but listen to the Doctor telling our hero that his daughter is dead: (p. 100) "She arrived in an examinate, unresuscitable, deceased state and we couldn't for anything get her around." Or, listen to this: (p. 102) "I didn't quite catch all that or realize till late that you were talking to me." The dialogue is coarse and wooden, often to no apparent effect, but perhaps this, too, is pardoned by the brilliance of Dixon's "experimental style." Indeed, the NEW YORK TIMES characterizes the author with this: "... he loves all sorts of tricky narrative effects."
Twain also suggests that authors should "Use good grammar." But again, INTERSTATE begins nearly each section with a non-sentence, i.e. (p. 70) "Driving home, thinking of his mother and him when he was little more than a baby, a photo. First only his mother for a moment." Of course, the brilliance of this experimental style must overshadow writing an actual sentence in English, so this, too, must be but a minor reservation regarding the novel's brilliance. While many students, upon writing such nonsensical phrases ending with a period would formerly have been given an "F" for their efforts, universally, in American institutions of higher learning, it is comforting to know that at one brave university, at least, an inability to construct a sentence need be no impediment to literary glory.
The narrative takes place over the course of the hero's life--though we can hardly call him a 'hero'--and, from the time of his daughter's shooting, through his jail sentence for killing the two killers, through the loss of his wife, his remaining daughter, and his rapprochement with the latter, a good fifteen years passes. Another, say, five years pass until his death, and as a contemporary tale, the denouement must be circa 2015 AD, conservatively, but there is no indication that society undergoes any passage of time. The tale begins and ends in the present, and though this is absurdly ignored in the narrative, again, it is only a minor reservation.
Finally, what little description exists in the novel is precisely that: little. But, again, surely this cannot detract from the accomplishment of so honored an author.
When we total up the prizes, the praise and the implicit ethos of the author against the slight defects of the book--no paragraphs, no real dialogue, not a novel, lousy grammar, historical absurdity, and lack of description--perhaps this brilliance stands somewhat tarnished.
Add to that its difficulty in being read (it is almost opaque), its obsessive cataloguing of mental trivia and detritus that in no wise propels the narrative, and the oft-repeated obsession with big and impressive words that in no wise conform to the characters as described, and the novel's luster seems to bleed away entirely.
But perhaps the Emperor is clothed, after all. With such praise, who could possibly assert that American Letters has lost its way, if this be the benchmark by which we measure our fiction? What is left, then, must be the brilliance.
[Note: INTERSTATE was one of five finalists for the 1995 National Book Award. Phillip Roth won. But I'm NOT crazy (well, not clinically, at least). The preliminary and final ballots for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Awards do not so much as MENTION Mr. Dixon's monstrosity, which says, I think, unfortunate things about having friends on the NBA selection committee (Dixon's last novel, FROG, was also a nominee). But I am not alone in my disagreement. My fellow critics, evidently, had no problems ignoring Dixon's credentials either. -- hw 4/30/96]