Stephen Dixon, man. I don’t revere the guy, but I appreciate from a limited perspective (some of) what he did. His Wife Leaves Him, his novel published in 2013, approaches story structure and time in a very playful way that’s also ambitious and serious and respectable for a “writer’s writer.” All of that is thought provoking and invigorating, but it’s a book that will annoy you (intentionally, I think, but still) in many instances because it’s literally about one guy thinking for 400 pages.
And not only that, but thinking to himself. As if in conversation. He spends the night after his wife’s funeral lying in bed, wide awake, reconsidering much of their marriage. Sometimes, he stands up to visit the bathroom and pee, and it’s in these spare instances that his train of thought halts, and the actual present tense of the novel exists. Much of the action is in the recollection. It’s in there that people walk around and pick up coffee cups and hail cabs. It’s in there that about a quarter of the book is dedicated to the narrator reconstructing – or trying to reconstruct – what it was like to call his now dead wife decades ago to ask her out for the first time.
It’s one of those books. It narrows in on small moments and blows them out into their own universes, and it really demands you take a seat in them. There’s a lot of stops and starts, trying to get the memories correct, tangents, weird dialogue that makes every character sound like a telephone receptionist, old people sex, and gooey, gooey love eyes, but above all that are these long, very long paragraphs (pages and pages and pages of the same paragraph) until those paragraphs grow short and the variety of the text expands. That’s the good stuff. All those paragraphs, I should say. That attention to framing the story in such a way is why it’s worth reading.
The paragraphs are (in a structural sense) divisions of time. They mark a particular moment in which the narrator’s thoughts turn to a certain subject or remembrance. Like, the longest paragraph in the book (I think?) is the one dedicated to the first date phone call. But there are layers to this. While the main focus of this particular paragraph is the first date phone call some decades ago, it also features a time when he and his wife made sandwiches or a time when they hugged or a time the narrator slept with someone else or whatever. The narrator jumps around his personal timeline and at times maintains the present tense to really pull the reader into those events, so much so you forget the first or second focal point of the paragraph, such as the first date phone call. It cycles through these layers blending them together, in essence creating this representation of time that is all present, everything at present, all happening at once.
That tells you something about how your brain works. It says memory isn’t imagery or a sensation but proof of a multiverse. It says the novel, or at least the written word, can do this. It can conjure all these moments at once.
Big concepts, you know? But what makes it impressive is that Dixon does all this through action that is, on its surface, basic. His sentences are brief, and they rely on small diction. They are about driving to Maine or classical music or wondering whether the dead wife liked pasta. There’s a lot of repetition and stammering because every word in this book is from the mind of one old guy who can’t fucking sleep. It appears simple, but it contains a lot.
Which is just good storytelling. And the use of paragraphs in this way is very effective because it’s easy to understand, and it utilizes the fundamental form of written words on a page. It resembles the formalism of panels within a comic book (sensible for Fantagraphics to publish this, yeah?). Dixon reminds you that paragraphs are units, and they can be dispensed to achieve a story structure and desired momentum.
But, many times, I almost gave up on His Wife Leaves Him. It’s a frustrating book because of who the characters are and what they do and how they entertain themselves. This is purely subjective. I can’t handle Upper West Side intellectuals who talk about Camus and dissertations and classical music, and the way the narrator and his wife speak to one another, depending on the timeline of the book (and maybe this is generational) is either so, so rigid or very overcooked, and I wanted them to shut up a lot, and I didn’t care about their relationship in the slightest.
That said, Dixon can write prose because every time I would pick it up, twenty, thirty pages would pass by like nothing. That dude knew how to sink a reader into a rhythm and take them. So you end up at the close of the novel, the narrator getting out of bed, 7 a.m., making breakfast on the first day of his new life, and you realize, though the book spanned so many different years and moods and images and conversations, that all of it only happened last night, and it will likely continue to happen. Maybe every night. Maybe all the time. Living all those different times. Until time is up for the narrator. It’s all macro in the micro. It’s all how you frame life.