Daniel Krin, New Yorker, translator of Japanese poetry, dreamer, bumbler and hero of Stephen Dixon's new novel, "Fall & Rise," is one of those frustrating characters who, given the lead narrative role by his impulsive creator, simply cannot stop self-communing in front of his readers, right down to the inevitable "Seat seems to be clean, and I pull down my pants and sit" routine, with all that follows colorfully described.
The plot Krin spins is straightforward enough, concentrated in one strange, sub-Joycean night that is at once dreary and phantasmagorical. Krin goes to a party, gets drunk and meets a girl, the sensuous and sensible Helene Winiker, whom he then pursues from afar, largely by pay phone, for the rest of the night, winding up in her apartment in the early hours of the following morning.
However, it takes him 245 pages, including several blocks of 10 or more pages of unparagraphed prose, to accomplish this, albeit with the assistance of Helene, who has her own chapter and obligatory toilet sequence toward the end of the book. But "It's not what you think," as Krin remarks in a quite different context. "There's this carefully plotted though harmless meaning behind it all."
The reader's task, of course, is to fathom this meaning, after having decided whether he is really sufficiently interested in Daniel Krin and his fortunes that he needs to fathom it in the first place. For there are problems with both Krin and the desirable Helene as fictional personalities. The first is that, in spite of Krin's comic incompetence and Helene's brisk practicality, the two really sound like different aspects of a single personality, as indeed do all the other characters in the book. Everybody speaks a kind of code, in rambling sentences all featuring the same grammatical quirks: dropping subjects and definite articles, shifting adverbs at whim. Perhaps every New Yorker of a certain class or level of education actually speaks such a code, but if "Fall & Rise" is meant to do for New York what "Ulysses" did for Dublin (and there are several indications that it is), then either New York is a much more tedious and homogenous city than Dublin was, or else Stephen Dixon is no James Joyce.
The second problem is simply Krin's and Helene's numbing capacity for self-examination. Krin is particularly long-winded in this respect, second-guessing everything he does or says. "God knows why I feel compelled to tell all this in my first call to you when you certainly didn't want to hear it, right? Look: right, wrong, truth or not, and maybe half of that was, since I tend to distort as well as affect and digress -- well, maybe not as well as, though I am a pretty effective distorter too -- just see me, okay?" And this is just an imagined conversation.
The main reason is that, in spite of its failings, "Fall & Rise" does create and sustain a vision of sorts, an image of the dark underside of the modern city that lingers in the mind long after one has finished the book. These people move in a glittering maze, from party to party, apartment to apartment; but the maze is suspended above a gulf of cold, darkness and menace that overshadows the whole novel. This is the gulf that Krin falls into once he leaves the party: it begins to snow, he loses his sweater, he's mugged and bloodied and robbed. Bereft of his coat, he is trapped in the outer darkness of New York City at night with neither money nor apartment keys.
Krin's sudden homelessness represents so elemental and nightmarish a condition that it is impossible not to identify with his pleas to Helene (whom he barely knows) to let him in. "Please, all I want's a floor . . . I'll only ask to wash up, maybe have something warm to drink -- hot water, even, with a lemon slice in it if you got -- and several aspirins and dabs of iodine. Nothing if you don't want or have and no washup if that's what you want also, and a blanket or coat over me on the floor and a towel or a coat underneath me if it's just wood there with no carpet or rug, and that'll be it."
By the end of the novel these simple things come to denote love, order and meaning, that "harmless meaning" that Krin promised all along was there and whose disclosure gives the whole exercise retrospective value. At the very least, it is surprising how much you begin to care whether an imaginary someone lets an imaginary someone else in out of the cold or not.