Saturday, March 22, 2008

Leonard Michaels' Collected Stories

I just spent the afternoon with this big book, in an effort to overcome what I thought might have been an unfair distaste for Michaels' fiction, acquired I'm not sure where. I think it was the result of the late "Nachman" stories, the ones featuring the mathematician Nachman, which appeared occasionally in the New Yorker at a time when I desperately wanted to appear there instead. I didn't like these stories, much in the way I didn't like Evan S. Connell's Koerner stories (Koerner was a writer), and thought I didn't like Michaels because of them, the same way I thought I didn't like Connell.

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.

9 comments:

Mr. Saflo said...

I read a smattering of his stories and found them (wait for it) irritatingly puerile. If you'd given me the story "City Boy," for instance, removed Michaels' name and told me an 18-year-old creative writing student wrote it, I wouldn't doubt you for a second. I'm sure there's something I'm not seeing and that my opinion is wrong, so if someone point me in the right direction...

Mr. Saflo said...

That last bit wasn't sarcastic.

rmellis said...

I have to say, stories about "rapes, beatings, suicides, and sexual perversity .... presented with chilly erudition" is pretty much the exact opposite of what I like.

jrlennon said...

That is definitely not one of the ones I kind of liked.

ed said...

I rather like "City Boy." The sexual outrageousness is balanced by the extreme vulnerability of the story's middle, with the narrator kicked out of the apartment and wandering around the city, naked, "sticking close to buildings." Vulnerability is hard to achieve, & worth shooting for.

"In a crisis you discover everything. You need a crisis every day."

ed said...

And as a teacher of 18-year-old creative writing students, let me stand up for them: they're capable of writing as well as anyone else, on a good day.

ed said...

With the weather behind them and a proper breakfast.

jrlennon said...

A reasonable qualification, that.

Mr. Saflo said...

There are certain quotas I need to meet in order to legally keep the "curmudgeon" designation, you understand.