Sex, Power, and Math by Jon Rachmani
For a writer of Leonard Michaels's exuberance, it is stunning that it is his knowledge of where to stop that makes the deepest impression. The elliptical finale, the lacuna at the core -- these are the magnets that sweep on the electricity in these otherwise verbally and visually overfull explorations of alienated life. But when read together, his stories not only generate great energy, they also inform each other. Michaels's fiction and his life always feel closely linked, and his best works form an intimate autobiography. And the newly released Collected Stories adds a broad cohesion to it all for the reader who goes straight through, tracing a vigorous and unflinching writer's movement from the cocky and bombastic Phillip Liebowitz stories that first won him fame, to the delicately forged stories of mid-life that show a structural brilliance close to early Baldwin, through to the late Nachman Stories.
We must first consider Phillip sprawled on the floor, sleeping naked on top of his girlfriend in her maid's room when her father walks in on them in "City Boy," written in the late sixties. Phillip is cast out into the street, still naked, and wanders through the night: "doormen in all the buildings; God knows what was in the park," till she comes out for him to say her father's had a heart attack and been taken to the hospital. They return to the apartment, banter, and then have intercourse again, but with renewed vigor. While this could read as shocking nihilism, it seems rather a portrait of youthful ecstacy rendered its most potent through its ability to sweep away the old order. The sheer intensity of their sex is enough to bring them into dominance. And it is a distinctly aesthetic dominance. If the sight of you can knock someone over and nearly kill him, you are a gorgeous, dangerous vision, indeed. And Phillip hunts the quarry of palpable flesh: "How much did he weigh?" he asks his girlfriend of her ill father, which could be concern for his health or just as easily a trophy hunter's ego. In the world of these stories, it is probably both.
There are also many early passages that suggest the writer's misogyny. Their relevance to the reader cannot be dismissed, because, as we will see, Michaels insists that his way of seeing life and art and love is distinctly masculine, and that masculine energy is both sexual and agressive, and his final escape from this is not through a deepening of understanding, but the inspired flight into abstractions represented by the late Nachman stories, which we'll discuss below. For Michaels, art and virility are closely linked, and as his animating force is a blind charge, the chances are that the object of that energy, be it a fictional woman or the story itself, is going to get damaged. Perhaps it was an awareness of this tendency that inspired the first story in the collection, "Manikin," in which a date rape by a mysterious Turk destroys a young woman's life and leaves the Turk in a state of sorrow. She commits suicide and when he learns of her death, "... he found himself screaming through his teeth because, however much of himself he lavished on her, she was dead." Sexual potency stands for inadvertent murder. This is rachetted up even higher by the two Yeats quotations in the story, the first one indirect, posing him as the Swan and she as Leda during the rape, the second when the young woman's fiance breaks up with her over it: "As far as he was concerned the ceremony of innocence was drowned". Thus a tie is made between the merging of godly potency with humanity and the apocalypse.
With greater confidence and artistic maturity, these themes bleed away from his stories, and his fiery energy is replaced by greater intricacies, exploiting more honestly his natural talent for unearthing enigmas in common social relations. Perhaps the compilation's most daring story is "Tell Me Everything," from the 1993 collection, To Feel These Things. Its narrator travels to a lecture by a newly famous French writer with his female friend. On the way, he voices skepticism of any artist who presents himself as a celebrity. He wonders at her motives, too: "But why must you know what the man looks like? I couldn't care less." She proceeds to tell him the book's full, overblown epic plot, and he passes it on to us in nearly four pages of brilliant pastiche that stay in the reader's mind more vividly than could any such literary monstrosity if experienced firsthand. What makes the interlude so brilliant is that much later -- after she has a fling with the famous writer -- she recounts their affair much as she did the story of his plot, but now revealing all the aimless detachment of real life attempts at intimacy. Michaels, in top form, and with admirable braggadocio, deepens his vision of life by contrasting it with all the excesses of false, presentational, arrogant art. And it's the untidiness and incompleteness that make the story palpably moving. The willful display of reserve by not tying elements from the epic plot synopsis into the friend's story of her fling, not creating symbolic packages for the reader to gawk at, in short, accruing meaning without any concern for writerly gesture or outward displays of symmetry allies Michaels closely with his master, Franz Kafka. As in Kafka, the Castle is shrouded in fog, and all attempts at epistemological confidence are inadmissable. Through simple juxtaposition we see both the ideal and the actual in this woman's life without being able to encapsulate her any better than we could an intimate friend.
Still, the latter half of the collection contains a couple rather garish flops, such as "Viva la Tropicana," in which a middle-aged writer is drawn into his gangster uncle's plot to sell to Fidel Castro one of many illegitimate sons the gangster had long ago tricked him into producing with prostitutes. The story is so long, the plot so overwrought, that it soon feels like a bizarre fantasy of lost potency, shared by Michaels, the fictional middle-aged writer, his aging uncle, and of course Castro. The overfullness of Michaels's imagination here supersedes its capacity for elliptical accrual of meaning, and we can sense Michaels's deep and sensitive awareness of the fact in his brilliant move to the Nachman stories.
No one should miss the gorgeous artistic leap achieved with these late works that take up a well-deserved final quarter the collection. Who would have thought that after his death Michaels, famous for his aggressive, intellectual and also brutally hypersexed characters, would stand a good chance of being remembered by posterity for creating a kind, quiet, consciously ordinary mathematician whose experience of his uneventful life is nevertheless wrought with deep feeling, desire, wonder?
Each Nachman story depicts the mathematician in the midst doubt in the face of his professional interest in beautiful order. Certainty is virtue in a world of chaos and impenetrables. As Michaels's tormented narrator in his novel-memoir, Sylvia, explains, "When I added two and two a certain moral sensation arrived with the number four." Nachman's response to life is, however, as deeply aesthetic as Phillip's was thirty years prior. His simplicity and aversion to worldly pleasures is not from any otherworldliness, but comes because he is hypersensitive, as we learn in "Nachman Burning," in which his trip to the female barber he's in love with flares within him with an innocent but overwhelming sensuous delight as she washes and trims his hair. It is beautiful and true: "In the sound and pull of the comb drawn through his hair came the rich tones of a cello pulling against the flight and flash of scissoring violins." As George Eliot, the prophet of the quotidian, explains in Middlemarch,
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
Nachman is such a keen hearer, an aesthete of such sensitivity and understanding that nearly all sensory life is too painful. He is both the finest possible antidote for the aesthetic speed trip of the earlier stories, and, at a higher level, in perfect tandem with them. And yet even in these stories the old troubles still linger, such as when Nachman briefly flirts in college with sexual power: "He hadn't intended to order her to sit. But he had, and she had obeyed.... Nachman felt a surge of gratification." To understand we must go back to Sylvia.
"... in "Sylvia", we can see what Lenny's real attitude toward women was -- sometimes baffled, but always supportive and equitable, without a trace of macho reservation; some of his best friends were women, in the phrase ..." Doubtless, these words from Diane Johnson in her introduction to Michaels's confessional novel Sylvia are sincere and reflect what it was like to know him. However, what we learn in Sylvia is something rather different from his "real" attitude toward women. It is rather a retrospective of the cast in which he forged the vision of the feminine as the reciprocal for male struggle. After all, the male narrators and subjects of most of his stories are closely allied with Michaels -- they are in fact often writers themselves -- and their attitudes toward women, while multifarious are often bluntly resentful.
"Sylvia", best read as a footnote to his shorter works, is about his years married to a madwoman which ended in her suicide. Unfortunately, the book fails to fully enlist the reader's sympathy because we do not have sufficient reason to believe the narrator would remain devoted to his utterly mad wife. He conveys her violence and her sadness with precision and a painfully sublimated fervor, believably shows the shame he feels over the whole affair, but fails to convince us that he too was implicated in this perverse world and thereby leaves the reader too often asking why he stays with her for so long. The deep satisfactions of constant engagement in histrionics is not rendered believable and we can only guess that Michael's is sparing himself the pain of admitting that he must sometimes have met his mad wife on equal terms. It is such private moments, untethered by rationality or perspective, that might have made his own character more deeply sympathetic.
Sylvia, however, is a key for the reader curious about Michaels's persistent flashes of angry misogyny in his stories and journals. Here he declaims his naivete in the face of his wife's insanity, allowing himself to be slapped around and mocked, allowing her to make comments about his stories on the order of, " 'I still believe our child will be very intelligent.' " Michaels readily acknowledges himself an active participant in fights, but where her actions are rendered vividly, his are not even disclosed, aside from such sympathetic moments as when he attempts to restrain her when she's been trashing the apartment. He metaphorically aligns her madness with the hysteria of the sixties, to Lenny Bruce and Jack Keruak and the constant flow of drugs, but this feels forced, hackneyed, and merely diverts our attention from the relationship.
But it does teach us something about Michaels feelings toward women that renders many of his stories of greater biographical if somewhat lower literary interest. Where in Sylvia we see a portrait of self-sacrificing, youthful and romanticized love, in the stories and journal entries we get the psyche taking revenge on a sex the writer must have found unplumbable and cruel. Such journal entries on women as,
"What's up?" Just pleasure, distraction from anxiety and boredom. Impossible to sustain conversation with them for more than forty second. The attention span of dogs. Everything must be up.
Ortega says men are public, women private. Montaigne says if you want to know all about me, read my book.... Real intimacy is for the world, not a friend.
are all the more astonishing because they come from a writer otherwise so insightful and magnanimous. In his talk, "The Personal and the Individual" (Partisan Review, vol. LXVIII, no. 1) Michaels states that, "When writing about myself, I find that I am interested in the expressive value of form and its relation to the personal more than I am interested in particular revelations of my individual life." By relegating women to the merely intimate, the particular and momentary, he associates some measure of Sylvia's madness with her sex, and this is a great irony, that in explicating this outlook, he renders himself merely particular, one of the most provocative attempts in his own body of work merely biographical.
Fortunately, in their fragmentary structure and mysteries, the best of his stories escape undamaged from such critiques, and continue to draw back those who've felt the electric tumble in their wake.