Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Today’s musing comes from CityLab Executive Editor David Dudley, who reflects on a recently departed prolific novelist:
The American writer Stephen Dixon, who passed away on November 6 at age 83, hammered out 18 novels and about 600 pieces of short fiction, the most recent of which came out last month. He was a two-time National Book Award finalist, but despite his prodigious output and loads of literary prizes, he needed a day job to pay the bills; his knotty, challenging, experimental fiction never sold well.
That job was teaching writing at Johns Hopkins University, where I met him as an undergrad in the late 1980s.
Dixon was an imposing figure, a laconic former reporter with a Lower East Side accent and no-guff demeanor. He wrote his fiction on a manual typewriter, which was getting weird even back in 1987, and his work vibrated with all manner of urban anxieties. The 1988 novel Garbage chronicled a bar owner’s doomed battle against corrupt municipal trash collectors. In 1995’s Interstate, a drive-by highway shooting launches a looping, post-modern nightmare narrative that repeats and restarts. Random violence, menacing strangers, and the workaday annoyances of city life filled Dixon’s stories, which felt perfectly attuned to the dysfunctional atmosphere of that era.
I didn’t work closely with Dixon at Hopkins, but I loved the badassery of his writing and was awed by the relentlessness of his freelance hustle: He gave writing students a copy of his guide to pitching magazines, something he insisted, against all evidence, that we should be doing. This typewritten document, which I still have, listed dozens and dozens of publications, from Playboy and Esquire to scads of teeny now-defunct magazines, and gave names of editors, rates, and unvarnished insider tips on what to try and sell them. Dixon seemed to approach the whole Art of Fiction thing with a refreshing absence of pretense; writing was more like steamfitting or hanging drywall, a craft performed by hand, every day, until you got halfway good at it and could get paid. For me, that turned out to be an approach that worked.
Many years later, when I had a teeny now-defunct magazine of my own, I had an opportunity to publish a Stephen Dixon short story (“Mr. Greene,” which also appears in the 2010 Fantagraphics collection What Is All This?). It’s a surreal, scary, and very Dixon-esque fantasia of random violence erupting in suburbia. Go pick that book up, Navigator readers, or, really, any one of his works: Other contemporary writers got more famous, but I’m not sure anyone did a better job of capturing the uneasy energies of modern American life.
What we’re writing:
How advertising conquered urban space. ¤ Blink and they’re something different: the rise of pop-up shops. ¤ The Paris Metro needs more room for riders. ¤ If you still have your Halloween pumpkin, smash it... for the environment. ¤ An old map of Denver becomes a newcomer’s guide. ¤ In science fiction, utopia is a lost art. Speaking of which, meet a largely forgotten utopian architect. ¤ Navigation apps and the “price of anarchy.” ¤ Climate change needs a better narrative, and Sweden’s chief storyteller has an idea.
What we’re taking in:
How garden-gnome mischief inspired @BestofNextDoor. (San Francisco Chronicle) ¤ One day as a mascot in Times Square. (Mel Magazine) ¤ It’s ski season! Here’s your essential guide to mountain architecture. (Curbed) ¤ Let there be night skies. (Huffington Post) ¤ For one matchmaking company, your loneliness is worth $725. (Washington Post) ¤ One hiker’s journey across California—on foot. (Longreads) ¤ Your two-hour delay is good business for airport restaurants and online companies. (Slate) ¤ The Mona Lisa is holding the Louvre hostage. (New York Times) ¤
Views from the ground:
@spartsuno captures a towering building in Melbourne. @ahmiich visits the “warp square” of Superkilen park in Copenhagen. @mikekowal people-watches at Pershing Square in New York City. @dontgiveafiddlestick finds children playing at the ancient Banganga Tank in Mumbai.
Showcase your photos with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we'll feature it on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.