THE COLLECTED STORIES
By Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
403 pages, $32.95
Raymond Chandler once wrote "there are two kinds of writers; writers who write stories and writers who write writing." The stories of the late American author Leonard Michaels (1933-2003), now collected in a single volume for the first time, put Chandler's theory to a ferocious test. Gathering material from Michaels's 1969 debut, Going Places, up to his last stories, unavailable since they appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Stories and elsewhere, this posthumous collection charts the evolution of an inventive, curious and ribald writer.
Michaels's movement through experimental fiction in the 1970s to essayistic, open-form stories in the '80s to character-driven realism before his death also provides a compact portrait of nearly four decades of American literary trends.
A writer's writer with admirers as varied as Susan Sontag, Larry McMurtry, Charles Baxter, John Hawkes and David Bezmozgis, Michaels wrote five collections of stories, two novels, semi-polished journals and the screenplay for the film adaptation of his 1981 novel The Men's Club. Primarily, though, he was a short-story writer. More than anything else, that preference for the short story's demanding mile, not the novel's marathon, explains his undeserved obscurity.
Formally, the stories changed over the decades, moving from a frenetic and aphoristic style in the first two collections to elastic experiments with autobiography in his mid-career to the transparency and seeming effortlessness of the late-life Nachman stories. While the form of these stories varies widely, each story is distinguished by his fiercely evocative prose and a courageously honest commitment to human emotion, good and bad. Michaels's combined preference for brevity and searing language has him hit the ground running in story after story. One begins, "I scribbled a hasty note, regretful, to the point. Fourteen pages, sharp as knives."
Many of these early stories whoop and whisper in a confident, slightly bent idiom. One begins, "Liebowitz makes his head out of cigarettes and coffee, goes to the West Side subway, stands in a screaming iron box, and begins to drift between shores of small personal misery and fantastic sex." Fiction readers keen to engage with language will savour the early stories, while those who prefer crystalline realism can appreciate the later Nachman stories.
And there's plenty of sex, admirably lewd, impolite, biting, needful, obliterating sex. Most of his stories concern combative romance. His characters fight more but drink less than Raymond Carver's couples. This concentration on sex and obsession is another function of Michaels's preference for the short story. Alice Munro's career investigation of adultery practically equates the short story to an affair. Book buyers may prefer the long marriage of a novel, but writers such as Carver, Munro and Michaels remind us again and again how arresting a great short story can be.
For more than half his career, Michaels's supple and ambitious writing served these amatory stories with a contrapuntal style devoted to keen observation and shrewd juxtaposition. One story quickly maps monogamy's contested terrain: "Love is infinite and one. Women are not. Neither are men. The human condition. Nearly unbearable." Another character sees "Black hair, green eyes. I didn't love her. Slender legs. I didn't."
However much Michaels might stretch the short story form, he is always empowered by its concision, as in this briefly evocative sketch of cosmopolitan drudgery: "A city girl, nine to five in an office. The days didn't return to her bound each to each by daisies." Quite simply, Michaels has a line worth quoting on every page, a record that shames a hundred successful novelists.
Beyond its musical, painterly and cinematic qualities, Michaels's writing is also distinguished by a protean intelligence. Quotable aphorisms and enduring wisdom abound. We're reminded, "Difficulty is an excellent instructor" on one page and that a "sentimental man prefers happiness to truth" on another. Of his compulsive love, one man says, "She disapproves of me. Criticism is my daily bread. But I'm never lonely with her, never bored." One character, who sounds every bit like a genuine fiction writer, confesses, "as soon as you know what you feel, you feel something else." The later stories about the emotionally distant mathematician Nachman prefer to demonstrate this wisdom rather than state it.
As this is a collected book of stories, not a selected volume of best stories (the CD equivalent of a boxed set, not a greatest-hits disc), we also see Michaels's less successful experiments with narrative form. Three of the stories from his second book, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975), are simply long, associative lists punctuated by subtitles, and they feel like a string of riffs, not songs. Two other pieces from the same book are short historical speculations about Trotsky and Byron that lack sufficient breathing room.
With his preference for the short story, not the novel, and his voluntary move from a large publishing house to a smaller one, Michaels clearly wrote to satisfy his own mercurial intelligence, not market whims, and yet this collection reflects the recent rise and fall of experimentation in North American fiction.
Leonard Michaels moved from imaginative form and diction in the early stories to imaginative plots in the latter. He worked hard enough, generously enough and long enough to be both a writer of writing and a writer of stories.
Darryl Whetter is the author of the story collection A Sharp Tooth in the Fur. His debut novel will be published in 2008.