To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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Interstate - Stephen Dixon It would be easy to assume that Interstate comes across as a kind of MFA writing exercise: in eight different sections, tell and retell the horrific story of a shooting on an interstate, in which a father and his older daughter watch his younger daughter die. But this is not some postmodern version of the film Groundhog Day, nor does it come across as a novel built more on style and flash than substance and heart. Dixon has serious themes he is exploring, and the novel's structure is in service to those themes.

At the heart of the novel is Dixon's blistering exploration of violence in American society. The most obvious example is the anguish that Nathan Frey feels over the inexplicable death of his young daughter Julie, and the repercussions of this death for Nathan, his wife, and his daughter Margo. I can see why some readers couldn't finish this novel. I found the opening two sections to be so wrenching, so visceral, that I had to pace myself, and read short sections in brief sittings. I have read books with disturbing subject matter before, but Dixon's novel affected me even more than usual. Dixon's writing style, with many long, run-on sentences, brings the reader directly into Nathan's memories, into his tortured recollections of this terrible event. The result is an almost claustrophobic connection with Nathan, but also an inspired reconstruction of how we talk to ourselves and, most important, how we relive and recreate memories of traumas. Dixon's exploration of the instability of memory is fascinating. Which of the retellings of these events on the interstate is true? Can we ever fix one version of reality firmly? What roles do fantasy and magical thinking have in how we experience past traumas?

In addition to the the shooting on the interstate, Dixon expands his study of violence in American culture to consider other kinds of violence, including road rage, revenge killings, generational shifts in violence and the socio-economic causes of those changes, the violence of American culture as seen in video games, and even an exasperated parent's feelings of impatience and the small but indelible acts of violence with children that those feelings generate. He explores these different manifestations throughout the different versions of the shooting, sometimes in graphic descriptions of Nathan's actions, sometimes through conversations he has with Margo and Julie (conversations that he often pitches way above their ability to understand), and sometimes through Nathan's pained recollections of his impatience with his daughters.

I struggled with this book, but I am very grateful that I read it. There are many novels that explore violence in America, but few that stayed with me for weeks, that made me think about the effects of violence in such a visceral way, that take on all the different acts of violence, big and small, that come together to create a culture of violence in the US. This is not an easy book to read, but it's a crucial book, especially to read on the heels of tragedies like the Sandy Hook shootings, and the killing of Trayvon Martin. It reminds us of the devastating personal toll of violence, and of the myriad acts of violence, large and small, that surround us -- and that we sometimes enact ourselves -- every day.

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