March 7th, 2017

true believers have the Spirit living in them

It is 9:07 AM Tuesday morning in the death flow here in West Michigan. My wife just left to meet old girlfriends for lunch in another city here in West Michigan. I am fighting to keep my eyes open. Our dog Rudy woke me up around 5:30 AM to go to the bathroom. Plus I have not been sleeping soundly since Carol got back from the Southwest. I usually try to catch up on sleep when Carol is working. When Carol retires in a year and half we will have to rearrange our sleeping patterns. I might start sleeping down in the lower level in the future or at least taking naps.

So I got up super early made a pot of coffee and then messed with our main computer. After messing with our main computer I wrote in my paper diary and then read till Carol got up. When Carol got up I made us oatmeal for breakfast.

Carol had a meeting at the hospital this morning from 7:30 AM till 8:30 AM. When she was gone I read and dozed. So has gone by the death flow. I have been reading this morning from a book titled, "Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost" by Craig S. Keener Foreword by Amos Yong.

I might visit this morning local thrift stores. I need to move this old body before it quits forever.

Yesterday I mainly read my books and wandered my cell. Carol got up yesterday around 2:30 PM. Our days fly by. I received in the mail yesterday a novel I had ordered from McSweeney's Books titled, "I." a novel by Stephen Dixon. I have been reading Dixon's novel, "Frog" lately and really enjoying it.

I suppose I will close to feel wasted. All one can do is stand in the evil day.

Yesterday I also read from these books when conscious-

"The End Of The World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, And Apocalypse In America" by Daniel Wojcik

"Robert Lowell Setting The River On Fire: A Study Of Genius, Mania, And Character" by Kay Redfield Jamison

"Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method" by John C. Peckham

Well enough of this chatter I will close to face what comes next.
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Jesus Precious

138 C.M. P. Doddridge
Jesus precious. 1 Pet. 2. 4, 7; Phil. 3. 8; Ps. 45. 17
1 Jesus, I love thy charming name;
’Tis music in my ear;
Fain would I sound it out so loud,
That earth and heaven might hear.

2 Yes, thou art precious to my soul,
My transport and my trust;
Jewels to thee are gaudy toys,
And gold is sordid dust.

3 O may thy name upon my heart
Shed a rich fragrance there;
The noblest balm of all my wounds,
The cordial of my care.

4 I’ll speak the honours of thy name
With my last labouring breath;
And, dying, clasp thee in my arms,
The Antidote of death!
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from a review on the novel "Frog" by Stephen Dixon found in Goodreads written by Jim Elkin

An Unusual Form for a Long Novel

There's an interview with David Foster Wallace, in which Michael Silverblatt miraculously guesses that Infinite Jest is structured like a fractal. In fact, Wallace says, it's built like a Sierpinski gasket (more commonly called a Sierpinski triangle). No one has followed up on that; there's even a new book out from Bloomsbury on form in Infinite Jest (2017) that devotes only half of one paragraph to Wallace's claim. I assume the structure is not legible in the published version because of the "mercy cuts," as Wallace put it elsewhere, but the fundamental idea is very interesting: small things are blown up to large ones, and vice versa, and the structure is recursive, enclosing near-copies of structures within each other, potentially without end.

That is one model for the structure of a long novel. I've looked, but I haven't found any studies of structures of the maximalist postwar novel, at least after Perec; it's a study that's needed for anyone interested in understanding what counts as whole, coherent, or complete in works by Schmidt, Vollmann, Barth, Gaddis, and other long-form writers. (Barth is perhaps especially pertinent to Dixon, because the two of them ran the writing program at Johns Hopkins.)

Stephen Dixon's Frog (1991) is interesting in this context, because it is fractal in a different sense than Infinite Jest. Dixon is a compulsive writer and publisher, and his vita looks like a tabulation of all the literary journals publishing in English in the last forty years. He's said somewhere that he had about 46 publications and half that many publishers, because he'd be dropped as soon as the second book failed to sell.

Most of his output is short fiction, and a fair percentage of that is very short, nearly flash fiction. His novels, with Frog perhaps the most interesting, are studies in the aggregation of short forms into long ones. Frog is 769 pages long, and divided into 21 chapters. Most of those are short, on the order of 15 pages. "Frog's Mom" is a novella at 110 pages, and "Frog Fragments" a full-size novel at 220 pages. As William Ferguson says,

"It is as if the central character, Howard Tetch, represented several versions of what one man might be – a portrait that includes not only his physical attributes but the host of possibilities that swarm around his life like bees around a flower... The most startling of these stories is "Frog Made Free," in which the four members of the Tetch family mysteriously find themselves in a cattle car on their way to a Nazi death camp. (Auschwitz's infamous motto, "Arbeit Macht Frei," is ironically echoed in the title.) We know from other stories – or we think we know – that the Tetch family belongs not to the Holocaust years but to later decades, yet nothing in the text indicates that this episode is a nightmare from which Howard might conceivably awaken. Such a daring imposition of characters on the past recalls one of the fundamental aims of fiction: in the midst of particularities, to be in some way suprapersonal, historic, truer than any individual truth could be." [William Ferguson, "Which Version Do You Prefer?," New York Times, September 4, 1994.]

Dixon's style is telegraphic, abbreviated, compulsive, informal, breathless, concise in grammar and excessive in the permission he gives himself to run on. The basic strategy of Frog is the entertainment of possible alternate stories and futures. In one chapter, the main character imagines what would happen if he went downstairs to investigate a noise; the chapter explores dozens of alternatives, one after another with no segues. In other chapters he thinks about his sister, his wife, and his brother, and their fates and paths through life. Even brief chapters ramify into dozens of stories, all plausible the moment they're told. Sometimes the truth of a death or an illness emerges as the chapter progresses, and in that case the multiple stories carry a heavy burden of pathos, as we're invited to think of the narrator's sad helpless rehearsal of alternate pasts. Other times the multiple possibilities aren't resolved, and readers get a less focused sense of the narrator's frantic mental state.

Frog is nineteen entirely separable short stories, a novel, and a novella, under one cover. The nineteen short stories are mostly entirely self-contained. Often they are as tightly composed as his free-standing short stories. I think Dixon wrote his way toward "Frog Fragments," because it contains echoes and repetitions of some earlier chapters; but most chapters are potentially independent. On the face of it, then, Frog isn't coherent, and in fact it is ostentatiously disunified. But the endlessly multiplied branching narratives in each chapter produce a fractal effect: the chapters divide into dozens or hundreds of parts, and they are in turn aggregated into the whole of Frog. Because the stories endlessly ramify, the ramified chapters are less incoherent. It's an interesting model for a large novel.

Dixon himself had talked about the structure of his novels, but he has a perhaps unhelpfully laissez-faire way of thinking about form. About Frog, he said: "I wrote the first draft of the first story (chapter?) in it in Prague – it's called "Frog in Prague" – and I finished it in Maine, summer, '85, and continued to write stories with Frog in it, and then the stories got longer and I had novella-length and novel-length stories, and that's how it was written. I never know how long a work is going to be when I start it, and I rarely know where it's going to go and what the structure of the work will be." (Sean Carroll, interview in Bookslut, December 2010.)

*
It's a separate question how well this works. Dixon has had an unusual number of negative reviews. According to Vince Pissarro,

"The run-on sentences, the rapid-fire but mundane stream of consciousness, the apparently frank but merely amphetamined dialogue that goes back and forth and back and forth within page after page of unbroken paragraphs that stretch as far as the eye can see: these devices are no longer energized by an author who has anything fresh to say... Exchanges like [that] are too easily achieved – too easily typed, even – and they're not challenging to the reader or to Dixon himself." [Vince Passaro, "S.A.S.E," New York Times, May 16, 1999.]

But this kind of criticism is too simple, and so is the complaint – common on Amazon and Goodreads – about Dixon's formlessness and endlessness. His narrators are compulsive, and so is the implied author, who writes at speed. His signature style, which omits particles, verbs, punctuation, and prepositions, is a direct effect of his frantic frame of mind: Write! Think! Publish! Don't stop! And when that frame of mind is applied to the dissolution of memories, as it is in Frog, the result is intensely expressive. It has the irritability of some Alzheimer's patients, and the everyday anxiety of any middle-aged person trying to make sense of her unraveling life.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/132298.Frog
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Which Version Do You Prefer? By William Ferguson

Which Version Do You Prefer? By William Ferguson

Published: September 4, 1994 New York Times Review

THE STORIES OF STEPHEN DIXON By Stephen Dixon. 642 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $25.

WRITING with admirable energy and skill, Stephen Dixon uses this selection from 30 years' worth of his stories to play intelligent variations on a few great themes: relations between the sexes, the plight of the individual in a hostile society, the unstable nature of truth. In "The Stories of Stephen Dixon," living and writing are artfully confused (as are madness and creative frenzy); his characters find it necessary to reinvent themselves, time and again, in a retractile language that always seems to be more substantial than they are.

In Mr. Dixon's unsettling fictional world, narrators tend to be unreliable, insistently questioning their own version of events. In "Goodbye to Goodbye," a man recounts in some detail how he confronted his girlfriend and her lover, but a page or so later he roundly contradicts what he has just said ("That's not the way it happened, of course") and replaces his first story with another, which later is denied in its turn. This narrator may be a jealous lover lost in a series of fantasies, but he also looks suspiciously like an author, obsessively recasting a story until he gets it just right.

Similar parallel truths are deployed in "The Painter." Here a famous artist's death is reported in a string of contradictory anecdotes, their shapes and colors continuously altered by the narrator, almost as if he himself were a painter retouching a canvas. The story suggests again that reality has multiple aspects, that what we see is not fixed and unified but a jumble of competing versions, that it has many forms.

What may be the most striking use of internal contradiction occurs in "Man, Woman and Boy." As the story opens, a man and a woman are discussing their imminent separation and the emotional effect it will have on their child. A page or two later, it seems that this bitter domestic scene has in fact never happened, since the couple and their son are now sitting together contentedly in their living room. (In a nice touch, the boy is trying to solve a puzzle on the floor.) It becomes clear that time is running backward in the narrator's mind; he relives his own parents' violent bickering and realizes that he himself is the incarnation of their self-perpetuating anger. We are slowly made aware that the rancorous episode at the beginning of the story is not the narrator's fantasy at all, but a scene from his unhappy future, invading the present like a curse.

Many of Mr. Dixon's stories are about men who are rejected in one way or another by the women in their lives. Seeking solace in language, they become compulsive talkers. (One, named Will, is unable to keep from making nervous rhymes and puns.) When these men are writers -- and many of them are -- they tell all, or more, than they consciously intend, under cover of fiction. In "Man of Letters," a character attempts to break off his relationship with a woman by writing her draft after draft of a letter that never gets sent; the last draft, the only one she will presumably see, contains no hint of his unhappiness. This premise is neatly reversed in "The Letter," in which a disastrous letter from a lover seems to contain a different message every time the agonized recipient tries to read it. More nearly expressionist than magic realist, "The Letter" uses irrational elements to portray the deforming powers of passion.

In other tableaux, men confronted by disasters -- muggings, rapes, bombings -- try to act responsibly, but find they are no match for the faceless crowd that inevitably surrounds and constricts them or the hopeless labyrinth of governmental services and the law. Social satire abounds in these pages, and the middle-class narrators are not always given the benefit of the doubt. In "The Watch," a man gives a beggar a valuable heirloom watch by mistake; as he tries to recover it, certain presumptions of ownership and economic class are ruthlessly lampooned.

With one or two exceptions, the action in these stories unfolds in the frenetic precincts of Manhattan, which may explain why the characters are so impatient with language. When they can't think of the right word, they invent one. (A woman calls her lover "missensi tive"; a man explains that he suffers from "inconcilia bilities.") This mood is particularly evident in "Said," a spectacularly ungrammatical tour de force in which the narrator manages to suppress all dialogue without affecting the story's meaning, as if at a certain point spoken words had simply ceased to matter:

"He said, she said.

"She locked herself in the bathroom, he slammed the door with his fists.

"He said.

"She said nothing."

In other stories, sexual stimulation makes words seem to melt on the page, as if the author were too distracted to type properly. (And who would not be, amid "cries of otter ecstagy"?)

SEVERAL stories at the end of this volume are chapters (or, in one case, part of a chapter) from Mr. Dixon's 1991 novel, "Frog," a work that is itself characterized by jarring inconsistencies. It is as if the central character, Howard Tetch, represented several versions of what one man might be -- a portrait that includes not only his physical attributes but the host of possibilities that swarm around his life like bees around a flower.

The most startling of these stories is "Frog Made Free," in which the four members of the Tetch family mysteriously find themselves in a cattle car on their way to a Nazi death camp. (Auschwitz's infamous motto, "Arbeit Macht Frei," is ironically echoed in the title.) We know from other stories -- or we think we know -- that the Tetch family belongs not to the Holocaust years but to later decades, yet nothing in the text indicates that this episode is a nightmare from which Howard might conceivably awaken. Such a daring imposition of characters on the past recalls one of the fundamental aims of fiction: in the midst of particularities, to be in some way suprapersonal, historic, truer than any individual truth could be.

William Ferguson is the author of "Freedom and Other Fictions." He teaches literature at Clark University.
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