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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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