I. is Somebody Else

REVIEW — I., the protagonist in the novel I., shares the same biography as Stephen Dixon, the novelist. He’s a writer in his late sixties working on the creative faculty of a preppy writing program in Baltimore. His wife is in a wheelchair. He has two late teenage daughters, the oldest heading off to college. Stephen Dixon tempts the reader to assume he is the character in the novel. At this near edge of fiction and autobiography, he plays up how fiction as a form of lying can also be a way of knowing. Stephen Dixon isn’t a novelist so much as a chronicler of a serialized life.

The narrative wallows in the fact that things are written down. The ticks of style, the breakdowns of narrative sequence, and the closely observed intimate detail makes it seem as if these events could only be so carefully arranged if they came from actual, observed life. Several of the stories dramatize the writer at his desk figuring out stories, identical to the stories at hand. In “Shoe,” I. tells his daughter about an inconsequential incident involving a woman he’d dated once and then he observed a week later after she stopped returning his phone calls. He saw her just down the sidewalk but before he could confront her, the sharp tip of her high-heeled shoe lodged into a sidewalk grate. I. watched her struggle to pull her shoe free. He was tempted to help, but he didn’t know what to do since she was getting angry and he wanted to go out with her again. The heel of the shoe pulled off her shoe, and the woman, with only one shoe, hailed a cab, and disappeared into the midday traffic. If stories are labyrinths of possibilities, Stephen Dixon’s stories are told by an acidic old New Yorker who can’t make up his mind exactly which fork he wants to take.

In another story the narrator’s disabled wife accidentally tips over in the her wheelchair while she’s alone. Feces spills everywhere. I. catches her furtively trying to clean the mess herself. His wife wants to keep the accident private and to keep it private she has to keep it to herself. If I., the author, finds her, she risks not only his immediate frustration (and this is something to avoid), but in the longer term she risks exposure in one of I.’s stories. Throughout the book I. loses it over numerous minute domestic altercations. He loses it over the fact he tells his daughter he is sorry. He loses it over lost time and missed dinner dates. In the immediate scene, the delay of I.’s impending hysteria propels the story forward. His wife doesn’t want him to get upset. To mixed results, I. attempts to use undiluted ammonia to wipe up the spray of fecal matter. When his wife explains that he should dilute one part ammonia to ten parts water, the solution works much better. The looming outburst of I. as his temper wears thin and exposes his split nerve endings contrasted with his wife’s amazing patience — perhaps due to her dependence on I., because of her disability and also because I. is most often affectionate — charges each detail with imminent catastrophe. Amazingly, the clean up job and sustained pressure leads to them getting naked and about to get it on, but the scene is interrupted when I. discovers that he hasn’t cleaned his wife’s wheelchair. He doesn’t have time to have sex and clean the wheelchair before his kids come home. Given the choice, sex waits, and the urge to turn anything no matter how trivial and private into fiction doesn’t hesitate. Stephen Dixon is a confessional writer without shame.

I. isn’t a novel even if McSweeney’s Press labels it as one. The book is more a collection of chapters rather than a novel. At this late date the formal structure of the novel has been folded and mutilated enough that no one agrees on the definition anymore, but I think if at some point someone compiled all of the stories and chapters of Stephen Dixon into a database, few readers would pull out the 19 stories in I. to make this book. Fewer readers would assemble these stories in this order. This book lacks any cohesive form aside from its physical shape as a collection and as a book. Because Stephen Dixon deals with such uniformly similar themes using such uniformly similar materials — characters with identical biographies to the author, a rushing, self-conscious narrative, a focus on the minutia of intimate, daily detail, I. reads as the next installment of Stephen Dixon, or I. or Gould, or any other Dixon doppelganger. Stephen Dixon, like Marcel Proust, constructs his story using a straightforward tool. Where Proust uses the sensual associations of his past, Stephen Dixon spins stories as a deliberation over what happened when. Both writers have written parallel fictions to their own, unknowable lives. And it doesn’t matter finally if they are stories or chapter or novels because their works build, finally, a ambiguous and total portrait.

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