Tuesday, June 06, 2006

No Mildew

“Fear of insufficiency is synonymous with insufficiency, and fear of incorrectness makes for rigidity. Indeed, any concern about how well one’s work is going to be received seems to mildew effectiveness.”

The giveaway is the final verb, “mildew.” That’s Marianne Moore, in prose, not poetry, though is isolation, except for line breaks, they look and sound identical. More and more, I admire such obliviousness to reception, the rare blind dedication to doing what pleases, what is necessary, what in the end is its own truest reward. In an age of focus groups and multi-million-dollar book and movie deals, such obsessive artistry must sound quaint, like an insane hobby.

Stephen Dixon, a longtime grudging admiration, prompts these thoughts. My first Dixon was Interstate, which I found almost impossible to read -- the theme of dead children does that to me – but also impossible to stop reading. I was awed by his obliviousness to pleasing the reader – no resolutions, no finality, just multiple possible outcomes to one premise. In this sense, but in no other I can think of, he resembles Thomas Bernhard, though Dixon is not a nihilist. If Dixon is avant-garde, a label readers and critics throw around promiscuously, he is a one-man avant-garde with a heart, rooted as he is in human discontent and frailty. Dixon is the poet of anxiety and failure. He writes in a dialect – American Demotic, we might call it. Often his sentences are long, mirroring the hesitations and reversals of thought, and they are never conventionally literary. His work is difficult to quote meaningfully because it is never aphoristic. His sentences, in isolation, have no point, carry no general import beyond their function in the story. I don’t normally care for such work. I prefer prose that is elegant, lapidary, like Moore’s, yet Dixon has published at least 10 novels and hundreds of stories (even he seems uncertain of the precise number), and I have read most of them. A good place to start is The Stories of Stephen Dixon or the brief novel from 2004, Old Friends. If you like him you’re in luck: He publishes a book almost annually, in a spirit of blithe cussedness – the quality I was originally discussing. Dixon is not often sloppy or self-indulgent, despite his prolific pace. He told an interviewer:

"Rewrite a work until you feel it's perfect. Don't let anything go until you feel you've done everything you can to make it a complete work, and don't fool yourself into thinking it's any better than it is. If you think that [the work] is not up to what you feel are your standards, you won't be able to get away with it."

The Moore quote at the beginning comes from an essay, “Feeling and Precision,” she first published in the Autumn 1944 issue of Sewanee Review, later published in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore.

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