Remember when 

I. and Territory of Men trade in memories

Like much of Stephen Dixon's work, I. seems to be at least semi-autobiographical, detailing as it does the life of a middle-aged writer and teacher living with an increasingly disabled wife and their children. But other than providing grist for Dixon's mill, those details aren't terribly important. He chooses to write about them because the loosely linked stories in I. represent the life he knows best, and his fiction is mostly about the active consideration of that life rather than actually living it.

That sounds like a dismissal, but it really isn't. At one point in I., the narrator mentions his distaste for Marcel Proust's writing. But like Proust, Dixon dwells obsessively on the mechanics of memory. Several of the stories in I. are deceptively simple recountings of a particular scene the narrator remembers as well as the state of the narrator's mind as he remembers it, including digressions, alterations and even repeated and contradictory attempts to put things in proper order.

If all this sounds like forced, high-falutin,' arty writing, there's some merit to that point of view. But even though I. seems to be constantly laboring to write itself, the subject of each story is usually meat-and-potatoes mundane: ordering a day's worth of domestic tasks, figuring out the best route to drive to the city, dealing with the continual demands of a disabled spouse's condition. There are some exceptions, notably in "The Switch," when the narrator imagines himself as the disabled spouse and his wife being charged with his care. But for the most part, Dixon keeps his gaze intently focused on what's directly in front of him.

At its most dry and deadpan, I. is pathologically Byzantine and almost Seinfeld-like in the narrator's relentless attempts to articulate how his mind works. Repeatedly cycling through the same scene, with only minute variations in order to reveal tiny granules of character, some of the stories are the literary equivalent of Chinese water torture. And as the book progresses to the long finale in the story, "Again," this tendency becomes more and more pronounced. Depending on your tolerance, you'll either view the ending as a tasteful show of heart or a coy cop-out. Either way, Dixon's style is not something you're likely to forget.

I. by Stephen Dixon. McSweeney's Books. $18.

Joelle Fraser, author of The Territory of Men: A Memoir, grew up in California, Hawaii and Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s, tagging along with a mother who leapt from man to man with a potent combination of determination and hysteria. Thoroughly immersed in hippie culture, Fraser's young life was forever in flux. Towns changed, homes changed, new "fathers" changed, and her mother -- the emotional center of Fraser's early universe -- always seemed on the brink of flying to pieces.

Though the flower-child life and the tenor of the times are the constant backdrop of Fraser's childhood and adolescence, she is focused much more tightly on the struggle for her mother's attention and love. This driving need for connection is the same thing that fuels Fraser's mother to seek out men, and her mother is at her most unstable when alone. In time, Fraser herself redirects her own need in the same way, as she tries to figure out why men have a pull both she and her mother find irresistible.

It's important to understand that Fraser's need is not a codependency. In fact, the pattern she ultimately recognizes is that of leaving. Both she and her mother are quick to terminate relationships to avoid revealing too much or getting hurt. Wrestling with the desire for connection versus a fear of exposure becomes the central theme of the book. Whether it's via sexual dalliance, marriage, working through a cousin's murder or plunging into a prison riot, Fraser keeps trying to figure out how to better get her soul at peace with its separate cravings.

Subtly forceful and compelling, The Territory of Men: A Memoir is a satisfying read. If there's anything to complain about, it's a sort of demure reticence that occasionally manifests (surprisingly, sex itself is sort of abstracted). But these are very small things in consideration of the whole, which is an engaging debut from a promising talent.

The Territory of Men: A Memoir by Joelle Fraser. $22.95, Villard Books.


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