Published on July 13th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman0
Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Beatrice” by Stephen Dixon
by Stephen Dixon
Publishing Genius Press ($15)
I am as confident saying that Stephen Dixon is the most underappreciated American writer of the latter half of the twentieth century as I would be telling you my birthday. He repeatedly took the stylistic devices of Modernism and sieved them through his fervently alive voice, writing romans à clef that add up to the richest bibliography I’ve ever seen—the tapestry of a man’s life woven through with dreams and what-ifs and marvelous, disquieting obsessions.
Beatrice is one of Dixon’s later auto-fictions, full of a December sadness. It begins with arrival: “Someone rang his doorbell.” It ends with departure, and the longing of absence: “And she would have wanted to go to the reading and then the reception and for that reason alone he would have wanted to go too.” In between is a fierce gunshot of consciousness, neurotic recollection and hyper-awareness, ego-paralyzation, the psyche at self-loathing attention.
The characters: Philip Seidel, seventy-something retired teacher, prolific but obscure writer, a recent widower extremely bereaved. Beatrice Hagen, middle-aged translator, attractive divorcee, and ex-student of Philip.
The plot: Philip is visited by Beatrice, dropping in to say hello and express condolences about the death of Philip’s wife. Over months a friendship, and possibly something more, is developed.
The conclusion: living accumulates attachment, setting you up for disappointments unimaginable.
The style: Here is the main reason to read Dixon. Everything from dialogue to observation to action is presented in the same seamless, streamlined manner, allowing for the “stream-of-consciousness” flairs to be absorbed as naturally as any utilitarian sentence. There are not many dialogue markers, the punctuation is loose and free, em-dashes employed liberally; but, unlike Cormac McCarthy, the effect is not effaced or obscurant, but rather easier to understand. Dixon writes all manner of experience in a way that makes it sound like a story you’re telling yourself in your head. Reading Beatrice feels as good and clean as drinking a glass of water.
But what a sad glass of water! A hundred-and-nineteen pages, and the very last one makes you want to lie down and die. If this is your first Stephen Dixon book, I envy you; they’re all glittering gems of human experience, wrought in an exquisitely American argot, tales told by a genius, full of euphony and awe, signifying everything. And Beatrice is one of the better places to start. It can be read in an afternoon. What a memorable afternoon that will be for you!
(August 5th, by the way. For presents, you can send me more Stephen Dixon books)