A little culture can be a dangerous thing; more of it, still more so. Reading this collection of stories prompts one to wish that Leonard Michaels had never heard of alienation, sentiment of being, nihilism; his fragile talent might then have flourished in comparative innocence. As it is, these stories are crusted with the junk of fashionable culture, both the fashionable culture of today and the fashionable culture of yesterday. There is Bellovian swagger without Bellow’s rich complication; Rothian sexual assertiveness without Roth’s sense of fun; and there is Mailer, and Malamud, and Borges, and Counter-Culture, all rendered “heavy” in the sense that young people use that term. Behind the influences, references, knowingness, and bravado, one glimpses a rather sweet sensibility with a small, damaged gift for narrative and notation.
Mr. Michaels writes two kinds of stories: “American-Jewish,” flauntingly bold and inauthentic, and a Borges-like stringing together of two or three paragraph sketches, vignettes, and reflections, featuring Marx, Freud, Trotsky, Nietzsche, Byron, Hegel, Dostoevsky, and other star players. This latter group of pieces I found impossible and often incomprehensible; they strain, with painful eagerness, for gnomic profundity, fables encompassing the absurdity of existence, and philosophical gags. They are of the sort likely to be described as “wild, man.” The level of wit is suggested by Mr. Michael’s remark that Marx was “an alienated Jew assuming the voice of Hegelienated Jew.” His profundity is suggested by an anecdote about a woman who worries that people are starving while she brushes her teeth and this upsets her morally. But “being moral is a luxury, isn’t it? No, it’s asking the question. That’s why I spend my time stealing, fucking, and taking dope.” Wisdom literature is a risky genre.
The straight stories focus on urban trauma and blithe depravity. A gang of Jewish boys peeks into a rabbi’s apartment as he makes love to his delectable wife, and then one of the boys suffers the punishment of being shipped off to summer camp. A man is stroked to ejaculation by a stranger in the subway, whether male, female, or questionable is not clear and it hardly matters—it’s just handiwork. A young married couple profit financially by submitting to sexual use at a corrupt publisher’s party.
In delivering these sorry anecdotes Mr. Michaels affects a minimal method—minimal narrative, minimal characterization, minimal detail. Bang, bang, hardly, and emotional fuss, and we reach the end, like the man in the subway. What is absent from these stories—differentiated and precise responses, say, among the boys peeking at the rabbi, some firm if tacit valuation of what their conduct, indeed, their whole story, signifies—is nothing less, as I see it, than the traditional substance of literature.
That Mr. Michaels is, somewhere, sensitive to such a view of his stories is indicated by the one about the young couple at the publisher’s party, where he makes some effort at complication, provides some detail regarding the flow of confused feelings—and that makes it the one story in the book which approaches the possibilities of serious writing. But his work is mainly marked by a swaggering reductionism, a naïve faith in the value of notation on the fly. It may be said, by profound critics, that this is what our life has been reduced to in the Age of Etc. Etc., but I think it more likely that it’s Mr. Michaels who is doing the reduction, out of some modish idea that relieves him of responsibility for regarding his characters as, perhaps, human beings.
With mini-narratives there go maxisentences. The light on a roof is “derealized in brilliance.” An “ocular perversion” becomes “the general cleansing nihil of a view.” A character “indulged in ambiance, in space like eons.” Another one, excited at a party, remarks: “Teeth stabbed out of my ass to eat the chair.” The same fellow watches his wife being fondled by that corrupt publisher: “wishy-washy figures of an erotic urn, evoking the prick of perpetuity.” Best of all is the character who finds himself “seized in a confusion of vectors.”
And that’s where Mr. Michaels left me, smack in a confusion of vectors.
November 13, 1975