What Is All This? by Stephen Dixon. Fantagraphics Books. 566 pp., $29.99.
What Is All This? is a potent, refreshing collection of previously uncollected short stories by Stephen Dixon. Though the music world might label this an “odds-and-sods” collection, this volume cannot be dismissed so lightly. This? is a book that reminds us fans why we enjoy Dixon’s writing and gives inquiring neophytes an excellent opportunity to sample the kinds of things he has gotten up to over the last five decades.
Any attempt to sum up Dixon as a writer would be a fool’s quest. So, allow me: he uses male narrators and a lot of dialogue and limited description and down-to-earth language, except when he doesn’t. His language can be transparent, translucent, opaque. His sentences can last for pages; three words alone can knock you out of your chair. He avoids grand statements and shuns the workshopped sheen of the parabolic arc, preferring instead straight lines or scribbles, action that bleeds off the edges or compresses all into boxes of black ink. Sometimes he shatters frames and builds new things from the slivers. Sometimes, his stories are simply stories. To put his work in context, the back flap author bio has it that Dixon grew up reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Kafka. Fair enough: his work reads like each filtered through the rest.
His subject matter often grows from the points of view of his male narrators—their violent conflicts, quiet mundanities, unresolvable fears. He does minutiae. He does weird. He writes about writers and writing a lot but he also writes about other things a lot. There are friendships and sexual relationships and family relationships. There are loners and losers. There is autobiographical content. There is absolute fantasy. His realism can represent the world of the latter half of the 20th-century (while rarely explicitly being “about” a time or place); his non-referential piles of words can abstractly meander.
I have taken some of my greatest pleasures in Dixon’s writing from the tension-slash-attraction between his experimental tendencies and his essential accessibility. His more imposing or demanding work tends to remain away from wine-and-cheese-while-dressed-in-black stuff: he writes so that real live warm people will read and enjoy his work, not so that we can act smart about it while cloistered away from the rest of the world. But even his most straight-forward writing can quietly thrill.
This? is full of all that kind of stuff, conventions abused or used as needed to make each story be what each story must be. Which makes talking about this book difficult, since half the fun of reading it comes in not knowing what will come next. As all-over-the-place as Dixon’s writing has been, these stories—plucked from the entire length of his career, from the leftovers of his previously published and uncollected work—are as all-over-the-place as anything else he’s done.
What I can say is that one of the things I love most about Dixon’s writing is the rhythm of his language—it alone can propel and elevate stories that otherwise seeming insubstantial. Allow me to safely dip into “Evening,” the collection’s opener, while trying to give away as little as possible about the stories that follow:
It’s been a long time. I don’t know since when. Just a long time. That should be enough to explain it. To say that: a long time. Very long. Since I’ve been here, I mean. How could I forget? In this room. In this house. On this street. In this city. This state, to be sure. This country, of course. Naturally, this hemisphere. On earth, goes without saying. This solar system, what can I add? This universe, I won’t even go into. Wouldn’t try. We all go a long way. Very possibly we all go the same way. Maybe we all add up to the same thing. This time: who can say? Nobody, I think. Maybe some people try. Maybe a lot of people try and some succeed. I don’t know. But what is it I began to say? . . .
Shortly after these lines, the rhythm of this language and its mildly disorienting, back-tracking view of a consciousness inside a universe fixes its focus on this presumably poor, elderly man who receives gifts from neighbors. While it hardly reveals unheralded depths of human nature, it does inquire into human connectedness through conversations. We are treated to several across the story’s few pages, the beat of the language shifting to a quick back-and-forth style so common in Dixon’s work:
The landlady comes in. “Hello.”
“Good morning,” I say.
“But it’s evening.”
“Then good morning for this morning and good evening for now. For how are you today?”
“Fine, thanks, and you?”
“What’s to complain about, because really, what could be wrong?”
“I’m happy to hear that, and have a good rest of day.”
“And I’m happy to hear you’re happy to hear that, and to you the same, a very nice rest of day.”
“Goodbye,” she says.
The final conversation brings the story to a weirder place, taking place half in words, half in taps:
Someone taps to me on the ceiling below. I get on my knees and yell through the floor to the apartment under mine. “That you tapping, Miss James?”
Three taps have become understood between us to mean yes, and she taps three times . . .
“What else would you like to say?”
She taps for several minutes straight. Hundreds of taps, maybe thousands. I don’t know what she’s saying. A so-so here, a great, yes, no and interrogative, but that’s all I understand. Then she stops.
“Well, that’s something,” I say. “Anything else?”
The candor of this story and the quickness of the sentences lead us through to a tonally resonant conclusion that I found honestly disarming. I reveal this one ending to stand in for so many of the other stories in which Dixon absolutely nails the closing line:
It’s cold but not as cold for me as it was. And it could be considered a good day. When it began I had nothing to eat and no prospect of a meal and no blanket or gloves. Probably also been a better day for the rest of them because they gave me these things and for Miss James because she knows it and spoke to me tonight. I turn out the light and wait for what I hope will be beautiful dreams. Really, outside of my friendships and conversations here, dreams are what I live for most.
By way of contrast to the taut compression of “Evening,” in which beginning, middle, and end all serve to form a whole grounded in some version of reality, consider the rollicking nonsense that is “Knock Knock”:
I was sitting in the chair I’m sitting in now, wearing the clothes I have on now, my right leg crossed over the left as it is now, a book in my lap as the same book’s in my lap now, reading, which I’m doing now. I was in the middle of a sentence when he knocked. Or she knocked. For it could have been one or the other who knocked, or even both. First he could have knocked, then she could have knocked. Or the other way around: first she, then he, but each knocking once and he knock coming right after his or his right after hers, for there were two quick knocks in succession: knock knock, like that. Or both could have knocked at the same time, each holding back the force of his knocks to about half a normal knock to make it sound like one person knocking twice.
The story, of course, goes only where logic would dictate it goes: a porch full of dozens of people and trained dogs and “the sound from all the body parts and things being used by all the people who knocked on my door would be that of two knocks in quick succession by the hand of one person: knock knock, like that.” It is a disposable story that gains a deadpan sense of hilarity through its blunt linguistic stunt.
All sorts of variations and themes bridge or burn or leap beyond the gap between these two stories—to place all the work in this collection on a linear spectrum would be a fruitless exercise. What to do with a story like “Yo-Yo,” told entirely through dialogue that explores the nuances of a trick in which a yo-yo is kept in one speaker’s mouth before landing in one of the most self-reflective farewells in the history of literature? Or “The Killer,” and its absurdist, contextless, obsessively fractalizing depiction of a failed suicide? Or “Next to Nothing,” a story written by a writer writing about the story he’s writing? Or “P.” and its several hundred words that are there simply to be played with:
Now, he would like to, in this day and age, right here, on this very spot, today, not tomorrow, this time at present, from these moments right now till he says stop, oh don’t be ridiculous, come off it, who would have thought it?, let the gentleman speak, I’m truly amazed, he’s saying he’d like to, what are you talking about?, where do you get that stuff?, will wonders never cease?, I declare, does he ever, I’m truly amazed, poppycock, baloney, you slay me, horse manure, beans, where does it all come from?, be with a woman like the woman in the story he wrote who was, act your age, grow up, don’t make me laugh . . .
Of course there are stand-out stories, and Dixon does his best work when he reigns in the abstraction, but what makes the success of this book is that so little of it ever overstays its welcome. All that playfulness and contrast is displayed across three sections and 62 stories in a generally pared-back fashion. For being thick, the collection is remarkably easy to get through. If this is your first experience with Dixon, you will see some of the techniques on display that he uses in his most ambitious work, but without having to devote three days to getting through any one piece of it. Even with a dense and self-deconstructing story like “P.,” the proceedings remain quick and are made more rewarding for it.
The overall effect of This? is of a primer: whichever brand of Dixon’s writing you gravitate toward here, you’ll find more of it in his other books. And once you’ve been reading his stuff for a while, this book politely reminds you how many other good things he can do.
This? is the eleventh book of Dixon’s I have read. I started with Interstate, which perfectly weds the experimental and the accessible and which killed me seven times in a row before sweeping up the pieces and blowing them into the wind. Since then I have been obsessive and put-off, enthralled and frustrated, entertained and bored. I expect to continue reading his work for the rest of my life. When I run out of new work I might loop back around to the beginning; I suspect Interstate will mean even more to me at 65 than it did at 25. For all that, as of right now, This? represents one of the best, most energizing experiences I have had with Dixon’s writing. Despite the major back-catalog gaps I’ve yet to cover, I suspect it is the Dixon book for the deserted island. After the 3200-or-so pages of Dixon, stories from This? still shocked me, surprised me, moved me, and left me emotionally naked. And that rhythm. It’s gotten into my blood, I think.
Darby M. Dixon III is a reader, a critic, a graphic design student, a fan of typewriters, a day job holder. He lives in Ohio and blogs sporadically at Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks.
 To parenthetically extend the metaphor, consider these odds-and-sods as remastered editions: Dixon “rewrote” each story for this book, according to the accompanying marketing copy. The extent and nature of the rewrites is left as a mystery, one that I’m sure could be solved with some additional effort by tracking down the original versions of each piece. This reviewer chose to stick to the text as it exists today, in this book. Partially out of a perhaps misplaced respect for the implied wishes of the author on behalf of the “definitiveness” of these versions, partially out of a need to focus on the review at hand. And plus the whole issue would be more worrisome and would warrant further investigation if it felt like there were some sort of latter-day homogenization at risk—if Dixon were taking all these old stories and smothering them in a retroactive coat of equalized blah, we might categorically need to dig deeper to find out what got lost along the way. As this review hopefully makes clear, that does not appear to be taking place, rendering the entire question temporarily moot. Until a spare weekend afternoon crops up for anyone interested in chasing it further. Anyone?
 Rest assured that, despite the shared last name, I remain a sincere, enthusiastic fan, not a biased relative.
 I of course say this with some knowledge of the fact that the editors of the publication for which this review is being prepared have a desire for more negative reviews or at least feel a need to cast a critical eye toward the number of positive published reviews. It’s a justifiable concern, one that’s plagued me as I’ve written this review. Believe me, I tried not to like this book. I have, in fact, had less-than-pleasant experiences with Dixon’s writing before, enough to know that, if this book had turned out to be a turd, I would have called it such. I admit to finding both I and End of I a bit on the dull side; and I mean, sometimes, those long paragraphs, anywhere you look? Sheesh, right? Except This? does so much so right from what I like of Dixon, though, and in this completely accessible way, that it won me over through whatever critical resistance I sincerely erected. About the worst I can say about the book is that not every story stuck with me; sometimes, if I read a bit too much in a stretch, they blurred a bit together, here and there. But of course the problem with that is, that due to the nature of who Dixon is as a writer (which, again, I’ll get into a bit in the body of the review), the stuff that didn’t work for me might work just fine for the guy next to me or gal next to me, so why complain too loudly? I apologize for liking this book so much, even loving it a little. Except, not really.
 Seriously, it would take a lot of Spoiler Alerts! to really get the message across in this review. There are stand-out moments here that it’s hard to even allude to, knowing they might surprise other fans as much as they would me. Please look me up when you’re done with the book so we can open our books to the same pages, point at them, and agree, stupid smiles plastered across our faces: yes, that.
 About which, if I may, I’d like to offer a note of appreciation to Jacob Covey’s design of the book. Spoiler Alert: the title placement of “Knock Knock” offers a sort of extracted punchline to the placements of all the other titles throughout the book. Also, the raised text on the hardcover beneath the dust jacket not only aesthetically pleases but interpretively enhances the book itself. This is a book as an object every bit in the spirit of the typewriters on which Dixon writes his stories and makes so much more sense when held in the hand than when seen as a JPG. From one fan to another, Mr. Covey: thank you for getting it.
 None of which, save for “Evening,” I have alluded to here. (Spoiler Alert!)
 At least, for me. A little bit of the pure ultrawordplay goes a long way for me.
 Which, even when plus the several additional short stories read outside of books, yes, represents a mere fraction of his total output. Though still less than half, I imagine it’s at least a thick enough fraction to have given me a decent enough perspective on much of what it is he does as a writer. Though, I don’t know: maybe the next ten books of his I read will offer some irrevocable perspective alteration.
 Long may that life be. Dude’s got a lot of work out there.
 And I’ve got some significant gaps to fill: The Stories of Stephen Dixon is an earlier “best of” collection which, if the contents of it are in fact better than those found in This?, are likely to leave me a wreck. And then there’s 30: Pieces of a Novel, which Dixon has claimed might be his best work, or at least work that he is as proud of as anything else he’s written. Here’s to the future.
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