In the past two decades American fiction seems to have yielded more great short stories than great novels, and several of the best contemporary writers write primarily, or exclusively, short fiction. Experimentation has been massive, imaginative, and, as usual with experiments, mostly dismissible, but at least one experiment seems to have become a permanent addition to the short story form – the story of amalgamated parts, parts being paragraphs or prose sections related by theme, not by time or place. This type of story, essentially a remoulding of the interior of the traditional story is effective and exciting both for the range and disparity of experiences it can encompass and also the ingenuity or force with which the disparate parts can be brought together, amalgamated. Different writers accomplish that amalgamation differently; mentioning in the same sentence Donald Barthelme’s ‘Paraguay’ and ‘Daumien’, William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’, and Robert Coover’s ‘The Babysitter’ and ‘The Magic Poker’ give some idea of the possibilities. Several of Leonard Michael’s recent stories (‘I Would Have Saved Them If I Could’, ‘Downers’, ‘Eating Out’) bring this experiment to perfection.
‘I Would Have Saved Them If I Could’ is the title story in the second of his two story collections. The phrase is taken from a passage in one of Byron’s letters, quoted at length by Michaels. Lord Bryon, in Rome, had just witnessed the public execution by guillotine of three robbers. His letter concludes:
The pain seems little, and yet the effect to the spectators and the preparation to the criminal, is very striking and chilling. The first turned to me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but was determined to see, as one should see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I and ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.
The story is an assemblage of letters, vignettes and bits of other fictions. Michaels quotes Byron’s poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, in which the condemned Bonnivard, in an ecstatic state, transcends his mortality. He retells Borges’s ‘The Secret Miracle’, a story in which Jaromir Hladik, who is imprisoned by the Gestapo, rises into an ecstasy and thereby eludes his death. He describes Dostoevsky before the firing squad, Jesus on the Cross, and even the dead woman in Wordsworth’s lyric ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’:
With rocks and stones, ‘she’ – an intensified absence – is a presence. In the negation of negation, she is. So are Hladik, Bonnivard, and Jesus. My grandfather was a tailor in Brest Litovsk. He vanished.
The story is about metaphysics and reality, about those who could sublimate at the point of death into a different state, and about those – six million Jews – who couldn’t. An anecdote opens the story; a Jewish boy has decided at the last minute to call off his bar mitzvah because he realizes he doesn’t believe in God. Closing the story are the lines, ‘stories, myths, ideologies, flowers, rivers, heavenly constellations are the phonemes of a mysterious logos; and the lights of our cultural memory, as upon the surface of black primeval water, flicker and slide into innumerable qualifications. But Jaromir Hladik, among substantial millions, is dead. From a certain point of view, none of this shit matters anymore’. This seventeen-part story, which counterpoints the easy escapes of literature with real death inflicted by real bullets and real gas, is one of modern Jewish consciousness, though much different than Saul Bellow’s Yiddish background or Philip Roth’s guilt and craziness. The technique allows Michaels his academic intelligence, his cool humour, and still a valid and tremendous sense of loss.
Michaels has published book reviews, occasional pieces, and recently selections from a novel he’s working on, but his reputation rests firmly on his two collections of short stories. Like Grace Paley, another wonderful writer whose reputation has been made on two story collections (and who also has had difficulty trying to write a novel), Michaels frequently employs a fictional alter ego as narrator or protagonist; Paley’s is named Faith, Michael’s Phillip Liebowitz. Like Paley’s, his first collection of stories is desperate, violent, stuck on the problems of love, and the second collection is funnier, more comfortable, more controlled and more powerful. After a dozen or so published stories Michaels seems to have mastered the storytelling art.
His voice is urban, lustful, intellectual, schizophrenic. City living is explored in ‘The Deal’, a story in which Abbe Carlyle has to bargain with a neighbourhood gang for the return of a glove she’s dropped, and also in short pieces like ‘Getting Lucky’, in which Liebowitz receives an anonymous hand-job on a packed subway. Nostalgia is given unusual and lively treatment in a piece called ‘In the Fifties’. Early stories, especially ‘City Boy’, display what Michaels believes to be the violent and fragile relationship between love and sex. Storytellers, Liars, and Bores’ is about writing stories:
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’d tear up the story. I’d work at a new one until it was imperative to quit and read aloud. My new friend would listen, but wouldn’t say good, no good, or not bad. I’d tear up the story.
Meanwhile, I turned to relatives and friends for help. My uncle Zev told me about his years in a concentration camp. ‘Write it’,’ he said. ‘You’ll make a million bucks.’ My friend Tony Icona gave me lessons in breaking and entering. Zev’s stories I couldn’t use. Tony’s lessons were good as gold. Criminal life was intermittent and quick. It left me time to work at stories and learn about tearing them up.
The overall impression of Michaels’s style is one of sophistication and polish, but often the sentences stab like splinters. Some are fragments.