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May 26, 2020

JHU profs & the summer fiction scene - A review of the latest from the Writing Sems: McGarry's Dream Date and Dixon's I.

By Martin Marks | September 12, 2002

At the end of the school year, I always look forward to a summer spent reading books that I wouldn't usually get to read. Whether it's a heavy Russian novel or those books assigned in Occ. Civ. that you were just too busy to get around to, the end of the semester gives the Johns Hopkins student a chance to dust the literary cobwebs out of his head. In compiling my summer reading list, I decided to include the works of some of my professors in the Writing Seminars. Stephen Dixon's I. (McSweeney's) and Jean McGarry's Dream Date (JHU Press) are two of the latest works of fiction out of the department. Almost opposites in style and form, Dixon and McGarry still manage to highlight how different approaches to fiction can produce two readable and enjoyable works.

Stephen Dixon, a professor in the Writing Seminars since 1980, has published his latest novel, I., through Dave Egger's publishing company, McSweeney's. A two-time finalist for the National Book Award, Dixon's latest novel follows in the tradition of some of his heavier novels, such as Interstate and Frog. Like his other novels, I. works out, in almost obsessive compulsive terms, the "what if's" of the main character's life. While blurring the distinction between author and protagonist, the novel starts with a third person narration and then switches to the first person. Eventually, Dixon settles into the use of the third person narrator, the protagonist called "I." The novel presents itself as an exploration of I.'s relationship with his parents, his wife (who is bound to a wheelchair) and his two daughters. Starting with the protagonist as a bachelor in Paris, the novel moves with an odd chronology, exploring what life was like for I. before he met his wife, if he were his wife, and if he could change his life-- one chapter even explores the repetition in a series of apologies he makes to his daughters.

The novel is meticulously crafted (as all of Dixon's novels are) though not in a way that is oppressive to the reader. I. is perhaps one of the most accessible of Dixon's novels to date, weighing in at just 338 pages, though it is only the first in a three volume set. Though he doesn't like to be put in any category, Dixon's novel I. is certainly one of the best meta-fictions I have read, blurring the distinction between the writer and the writing while still containing a thoroughly readable work of fiction.

Jean McGarry has been a professor in the Writing Seminars since 1987 and the head of the department since 1997. Her latest collection of short stories, entitled Dream Date, was released through the Johns Hopkins Press at the beginning of the summer. This elegant examination of the relationship between man and woman is split into two sections of stories, respectively entitled "His" and "Hers." Though the book is split into these sections, "His" and "Hers" interact with each other and provide a whimsical yet graceful look at the sexes.

The reader, at times, gets a sense that the surrealism of these stories offers a view of just how silly the differences between the sexes are. In "The Secret of His Sleep," the last and longest story in the "His" section, a man wakes up from a 40 year sleep, while in "The Thin Man," a man describes the sensation of losing 175 pounds. Descriptions of cigars, fine wines, Parisian cafes and famous authors (Ezra Pound affectionately nicknamed OEz Po' in "The Last Time") make the stories lushly removed from the everyday actions of their characters. Like Dixon, McGarry strives for technical perfection in her work, leaving room for her whimsical effects to air in the context of the prose.

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