- Late Stories by Stephen Dixon, and: Beatrice by Stephen Dixon, and: Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon
These three books bring Stephen Dixon’s total to 34—20 novels and novellas and 14 collections of stories. In fact, Dixon has published almost one book a year for the past 40 years. In Late Stories, an 80-year-old man is learning to live without his deceased wife. Dixon retired from the Writing Seminars in 2007, after teaching at Johns Hopkins for 27 years. Two years later, he lost his wife, Anne Frydman, a scholar of Russian literature. Frydman had lived for 20 years with multiple sclerosis. Dixon writes about the impact of her passing in one of his most complex novels, His Wife Leaves Him (Fantagraphics Books, 2013). Late Stories is Dixon’s account, in 31 short stories, of what it is like for a man like him to live without a woman like Anne.
The central characters in these stories are a writer and retired professor named Philip Seidel and his wife Abigail, or Abby. The chief topics are Seidel’s reflections on his daily life, his memories, and his efforts to find a new lover. The real subject of the collection, however, is Abby’s memory. Even though she is named in only nine of the stories, and even fewer describe incidents in Seidel’s years with her, every story shows that Abby affects everything that Seidel does. In “Two Women,” for example, Seidel hears a woman calling him from the bedroom to come in and have sex. He can’t decide whether the voice is that of his wife or of a woman he recently met and wants to know better. The reader finally realizes that the voice is entirely the man’s imagination. Seidel describes his household routines in “Remember” and “What They’ll Find.” He doesn’t mention Abby, but her absence shows the reader that Seidel knows that something is still missing from his life. In fact, Seidel is as trapped by Abby’s memory as James Joyce’s characters are by Dublin.
Dixon has devoted his writing career to making the style of a story correspond to its content. Dixon’s voice is instantly recognizable—his narratives are mostly in dialogue, his diction is simple, and he doesn’t [End Page 149] describe people or settings—but he is constantly developing new narrative techniques. For example, “Wife in Reverse,” the opening story in this collection, depicts the thoughts that sustain Seidel after his wife’s death. The story opens with that event and goes backwards in time, giving a sentence to each of the major events of their marriage, ending with their meeting and his resolving to marry her. Thus the story imitates a traditional elegy by carrying the speaker from loss and despair to hope. In “Therapy,” Seidel prepares for an appointment with a psychotherapist he made at his daughters’ urging by cataloging the matters he wants to talk to her about: his loneliness, his failing health, his inability to keep up his house. He cheers up when he reflects that at least his writing is going well and the reader realizes that writing still makes him happy. The memory of a deceased wife seems to shape other memories in “Cochran.” The narrator meets a celebrated writer named Cochran briefly. A year later Cochran retires and gives his writing studio to the narrator, who eventually declines it. After making that decision, the narrator goes home and drafts a story about how he met his late wife. She was in a line at a movie theater reading a book by a Scottish author, Maitland Cochran, who lived in France and wrote in French. Dixon leaves the reader wondering whether the two Cochrans are the same man—their histories don’t seem to be consistent—or whether the narrator’s meeting with Cochran was imaginary, the product of his memory of his wife.
Dixon uses these stylistic techniques to achieve his most...