Stephen Dixon: Sleep

Stephen Dixon
Coffee House Press

OF THE MANY things I admire and respect about dogs, foremost in my esteem is the canine's talent for tail-chasing. With what would certainly be considered intolerable stupidity in a less congenial species, a dog can pursue his own tail for hours and find dizzying pleasure without ever gaining an inch on his waggling quarry. Then he can lick himself, forget about the whole business, and take a nap. The characters in Stephen Dixon's Sleep might do well to follow the example of Canis familiaris. In 22 short tales harvested from throughout Dixon's career, the author sends his people circling doggedly around little epiphanies and engaging in existential tail-chasing. How much simpler their troubles might seem after a good licking and a long nap.

Though Dixon has twice been a National Book Award finalist, he is often labeled an experimental writer for his habit of turning mundane stories of suburban angst into frazzled, disjointed tales that weave drunkenly between narrators. Many of the stories in Sleep find him in fine, intoxicating form, spinning lines of stilted dialogue with a metafictional wink and nod. Consider the following passage from "Tails," a story that does not even maintain the pretense of being about anything: "I go into the house. I'm in the house. I'm alone. I'm with someone. She's there. Or he. Another man or boy. Or me. I'm he. Just I'm here. I talk, I walk. I can't talk, I can't walk. I crawl on my belly like a reptile, as she said..." and so on and so forth until the collection's title begins to seem prophetic.

Obtuse as it occasionally is, Sleep also displays Dixon's well-honed sense of the absurd. In "Dat," a man cajoled into sitting for his ex-girlfriend's cat runs short of cash and takes to feeding the pussy puppy chow because it's cheaper. In Dixon's skewed universe, the cat metamorphoses into a dog (thus, the "dat" of the title), and when the man begins eating Purina, he too turns into a dog. It's the old "you are what you eat" premise, but Dixon carries it off with enough deadpan humor to make it palatable.

In another tale, a man eavesdrops on a conversation as he waits for an elevator. The discussion revolves around a short story from a recent fiction magazine that consists of four phrases: "'Here is the story, this is the story, that was the story, and that's it, the story.'" Observing people arguing vehemently about fiction that bears a striking resemblance to his own, Dixon pokes fun at himself while slyly suggesting that people will read and enjoy almost anything if you call it avant-garde and put it in the Atlantic Monthly.

When Mr. Dixon isn't turning people into dogs or engaging in his peculiar brand of linguistic onanism, his stories are very good in a conventional way. As a number of the pieces in Sleep attest, he is especially adept at dissecting the layered neuroses of middle-aged men caught in psychic holding patterns of their own devising. In "The Stranded Man," one of these unfortunates constructs an elaborate daydream in which he is marooned on a desert island. Elsewhere, a vain theater impresario obsesses about an ill-fitting toupee, and a man becomes fixated on an object by the side of the road that he imagines may be a dead body. With relaxed grace, Dixon creeps into the troubled minds of his characters until the stories themselves begin to seem like extended conversations between men and their unconscious minds.

Heady stuff for the most part, but Sleep occasionally lands a visceral sucker punch as well. In the title story, for instance, a man returning from his wife's funeral replays a moment of weakness in which he wishes his wife dead so that he can finally get some sleep. He cannot rest, however, and is only able to repeat the terrible instant over and over: an exhausted and broken man doomed to chase his own tale to infinity.

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