But Connell I turned out to love, once I read his other stuff, and today I thought perhaps the same would prove true for Michaels.
Well--not quite. But almost. There's more to Michaels than I thought. But I can't count him among my favorites. His prose, especially in the earlier stories, is baroque and overheated; he reads like a man very eager to prove his intelligence. He does, of course, but at times this is small comfort. I imagine Michaels, his writing self, as a small, wiry, authoritative man in a suit, strolling around at a cocktail party slapping everyone in the face. He is dislikable, but he cuts a compelling profile.
The early stuff is all about rapes, beatings, suicides, and sexual perversity, and it is presented with chilly erudition. I remain resistant to it. But Michaels begins getting very interesting around the time of his second book of stories. Pieces like "Eating Out" and "Downers," with their series of strange, blackly comic vignettes, or the masterful "In The Fifties," a deadpan list of relationships, encounters, and events, show Michaels at his most innovative and engaging.
He's also a master of great openings. Here are a few:
I'd work at a story until it was imperative to quit and go read it aloud. My friend would listen, then say, "I feel so embarrassed for you."
I was the most dedicated basketball player. I don't say the best. In my mind I was terrifically good. In fact I was simply the most dedicated basketball player in the world.
When my uncle Moe dropped dead of a heart attack I became expert in the subway system.
Talmudic scholar, master of Cabala, Isaac felt vulnerable to a thousand misfortunes in New York, slipped on an icy street, lay on his back, and wouldn't reach for his hat.
I scribbled a hasty note, regretful, to the point.
In the spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.
But after a page or two, Michaels usually seems to stop caring about his reader, and retreats into his private world of intellectual and emotional circularity. Personally, I'm only intermittently inclined to join him there.
But that's enough, ultimately. The book is definitely worth reading--Michaels' insular brilliance is a peculiar thing to experience, and is of particular value seen as a career-spanning whole. Give it a try, see if you can take it.