Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Collected Stories

Leonard Michaels
The Collected Stories
I came across Leonard Michaels in Stanley Fish’s How to Read a Sentence (And How to Write One), where Fish discusses Michaels’ short story “Honeymoon,” and, exceeding his self-imposed boundaries, muses on much more than its opening sentence. I wanted to read “Honeymoon” for myself and ordered up his Collected Stories.

Michaels was a writer of literary fiction, with all that entailed in the mid- to late-twentieth century, a New York Jew who became a California professor. The stories as collected are arranged roughly in chronological order, which means the first half of the book is mostly tales of Jewish men struggling with shiksa women. Frankly, his anxieties are not that different from those of a Roth or an Updike, and therefore somewhat tiresome to a later generation. (Women are not a strange species who exist only to cause confusion and discomfort in men. If “modern” swinging love makes you unhappy, give it up and just do what makes you happy. Etc.)

But his writing is at times splendid and not easy to take. The book’s opening salvo is the story of a college woman who is raped and then commits suicide. It is at no point graphic, but it is brutal.

I recently read Paul Haines’ final collection of short stories, The Last Days of Kali Yuga. (This is not a digression.) Haines wrote horror – most of it not creepy, suggestive horror, but bloodspatter and entrail-waving horror. His stories are fine; some of them even won awards. None of them hold a candle to his brilliant novella “Wives,” which closes out the book. “Wives,” strictly speaking, isn’t horror; it’s speculative fiction, in which the only “speculative” part is changes in social structure. There is no hint of the fantastical, mythical, phantasmagorical, eldritch, unearthly, or divine in it, but simply a graphic critique of patriarchy.

Where Haines’ career would have gone if he had lived longer is unknowable, but “Wives” suggests he was finding his true métier with longer fiction. The second-best thing he wrote was his blog, in which he unflinchingly discussed his cancer and the family he would soon be leaving behind.

What he would not have become was Leonard Michaels. Michaels, unlike Haines, lived a long life, although his career was short – several short-story collections and two novels, one of which was a success. The novels do not hold up well.

But the short stories – his short stories are more truly horror than any of Haines’ tales of backpackers with cruel knives, despite that they are “realistic” literary fiction. Each brief story is a slim-tipped needle that sinks into your skin easily and leaves your bleeding. At least, this is the case for the first two-thirds of the collection.

Somewhere past the halfway point the horror stops and the stories become rather banal tales of modern men going to modern parties with their girlfriends, usually of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion, and modernly taking drugs and having exhausting, modern, unjoyous sex with partners not of their own choosing. Things do pick up near the end with his Nachman stories – less sex and drugs, more math and Asperger’s. Somewhere in here, too, his women turn into human beings, even if not likeable ones.

Haines also would never have become Michaels because his stories, for all that they feature white male protagonists, are highly critical of the patriarchy and sexism that is taken for granted in Michaels. Haines, nearly literally, puts women in refrigerators, but he does so to a purpose. Michaels would never do anything so pulpy, but he seems to sincerely believe that is where women belong. David Bezmozgiz in Tablet magazine seems somewhat mystified that his friend and mentor isn’t better known. I could tell him why, but I don’t think he’d understand, any more than Michaels himself did.