The What-If Game
One of Stephen Dixon’s favorite strategies is telling the same story repeatedly, but changing a variable in the cause-and-effect chain with each telling — having fate deal a slightly different event, for example, or causing a key agent to make a different choice — and then exploring how time rings the changes differently in the lives of the characters. Sometimes we seem to be reading a study in worry — what will happen to me and the people I love if I don’t rightly account for all the possible permutations of even the smallest choices I make? — and sometimes we seem to be reading a study in the futility of trying to fight the forces of fate, since maybe there’s no accounting for the consequences of our choices as they play out along the cause-and-effect chain when so many things are so far beyond our control. Agency is everything and/or there is no agency.
The most focused of Dixon’s fictions that employ this strategy can be found in his novel Interstate (which was a National Book Award Finalist in 1995, and yet is now, sadly, out of print, and ripe for reprinting by an outfit like Dalkey Archive Press or New York Review Books — whichever wises up first.) Interstate tells the same story eight times. A guy is driving a car on the interstate, his two daughters with him, and some rough-looking guys in another car show a gun. In each of the tellings, he does something different, or the guys in the other car do something different, in response to the scenario. The consequences might extend only into the next few minutes, or the moment might become the dividing line between one kind of life and another. Having established the one rigid formal constraint — each story will begin in this moment, and there will be eight explorations of possible alternative outcomes — Dixon frees himself to explore what follows very freely with regard to how time is used, how characters are constructed, how the telling will privilege or balance scene or exposition, or even how point of view will be constructed with relation to pronouns (Chapter Six is rendered in second person.) The one unifying thread, besides the inciting incident and the unity the recursion offers, is what we might call the voice of Stephen Dixon, which, although it is mostly given from inside the protagonist’s point of view (we’re parsing the protagonist’s needs, wants, desires, thoughts, memories, and motivations, and seeing the world through the protagonist’s eyes), is still concurrently present — we have the characteristic Dixonian hyper-analytic articulation of things, the pages-long paragraphs, the strange accordioning of time, and, most of all, the structure-making puppeteer pulling the strings at all times. The psychological realism here is in service of almost didactic ends — the reader is being invited to ask a series of questions about the nature of life, the nature of fate, the nature of human agency, the ways in which human relationships are dependent upon circumstance. The ultimate end of the book, in other words, is not verisimilitude, but verisimilitude (plus structural repetition) is the means that gets us to that end. It is an appealing strategy, not least because Dixon is skillful enough realist to make us forget, eight times in a row, that we’re not in the realm of strict realism.
Tags: Stephen Dixon