I.by Stephen Dixon
McSweeney's Books, 338 pp., $18
At a party recently, someone began talking about metafiction. Another person asked, "What is metafiction, anyway?" and everyone looked at me, because I was an English major. I gulped my drink and stammered something about a text drawing attention to its own artifice, exposing the creative process behind its creation. Now that I have savored Stephen Dixon's new novel, I., I wish that I could go back to that party. I would take Dixon's novel of linked stories from my pocket and say "This is what metafiction is," and I would begin to read from the author of more than 500 short stories and two dozen books, who has twice been nominated for the National Book Award. He is a writer's writer; many have copied his dreamy, deadpan style.
Perhaps I would begin with a few sentences from the chapter titled "Pickle": "He writes and writes and writes and nothing comes out. ... He's been in this situation before. He was going to say situation but he's already said situation. But first he was going to say pickle. So why didn't he just say pickle? Because it really isn't a pickle and saying pickle would be saying it just to, well, not ingratiate himself with whomever sees this, though that was what he was going to say and is probably what he means but to ... to just sound amusing and appealing and maybe even winsome and endearing or something." Perhaps I would read some of Dixon's unnerving dialogue: "'You know, I didn't want to spring this on you, or not at this time. But as long as we're speaking of accidents, even if this isn't the kind you mean, you almost ran over me today.'" I would talk about how Dixon's stories begin with one scenario and then become visions of other ways the scene could have played out. Dixon brings the framework of fiction writing to the surface, the decisions made and the lines most authors cross out.
McSweeney's -- who rescued I. after Dixon's longtime publisher Henry Holt rejected it -- bills the work as autobiographical, and many aspects of the narrator's life are also true of Dixon: He is a writer with two daughters and a wife in a wheelchair. But to try to quibble about what is "true" in Dixon's work is beside the point. His stories are about re-imagining, about coming to terms with what could have been. With nothing more than a paragraph break, everything can change. The best thing about Dixon is that he makes metafiction accessible. As I. states, "No writer's great if you have to have postgraduate degrees in seven different disciplines to understand most of his work." Although I. isn't as thrillingly wacky as some of his work (30: Pieces of a Novel and Gould: A Novel in Two Novels are my favorites), it serves as a good entrée into Dixon's work, and the book is gorgeous, featuring arresting cover art by Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame.
I. is available online at www.mcsweeneys.net and at independent bookstores, including BookPeople. Also, McSweeney's is asking for stories about reading Stephen Dixon books or traveling abroad with them, as well as stories inspired by Dixon's work.