Alan Lelchuk Critical Essays

Lelchuk, Alan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lelchuk, Alan 1938–

Lelchuk is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

[In American Mischief, a] Dean at Cardozo College, right outside Boston, keeps a harem and tries to talk like Moses Herzog about the pleasures and pains of being a contemporary man who goes about and visits women. A student at Cardozo admires the Dean for the "honesty" of having a harem, and hates him for his old-fashioned politics and morality. So, after warming up his campaign of guerrilla politics by raping a fourteen-year-old virgin, murdering Norman Mailer, and sacking the Fogg Museum, the student kidnaps the Dean and a group of other literate liberals and carts them off to a hideout in New Hampshire where the older folks are to be educated in the task of reshaping America.

Now there is no Cardozo College, but there is a Brandeis, a Norman Mailer, a Fogg Museum, and a New Hampshire. Presumably there is a dean somewhere who keeps a harem, and there certainly are guerrilla students who would like to kidnap old-line liberals. But still, American Mischief is not a novel. It is as real as [a] State Farm ad, and one hopes that quick identification of its phoniness will give us better things to argue about in 1973….

Lelchuk is hard pressed to get anyone to believe he wrote all that … pornography [in the opening section] just to draw an "accurate picture" of decadent America….

[In] the next section a student leader, Lenny Pincus, describes his transformation from a thoughtful radical loner to a gorilla trying to get more in touch with raw current reality…. [This takes] up half the book, and we are supposed to revalue our earlier position and realize the Dean may have had something when he insisted that the trouble with the kids is that they didn't know guerrillas turned into gorillas. Having done that, we are supposed to think back to the Dean and his filthy harem and feel caught deep in some moral ambivalence about modern America.

We all know that the point about pornography is that it is meant to happen to readers, not to characters, so we know, reading the first 150 pages, that we—those of us who are male—are supposed to admit our envy of the Dean's antics or else be condemned as liars. But the rest of the book is like that, too; nothing happens to anyone inside, it's all meant for us alone. If, guiltily but willingly, we repudiate the Dean and his harem, we do so realizing America has brought its leaders to this pass, and therefore side or sympathize with the guerrillas who want to change all that. But by the time a black girl shits on one of the Dean's mistresses in the New Hampshire snow, we are meant to see what a bind the country is in, caught between the decadence of the Dean and the barbarism of the kids. But because none of the characters realizes any of this, the novel seems like pornography.

Lelchuk seems to be trying to confront us with a moral dilemma when in fact he is giving us only a crude political choice. The effect of the fictional method is not even to insist upon the choice but to let us have it both ways. Ostensibly we will feel that if we aren't damned as liberals or revolutionaries we will be damned as libertines or prudes. In fact we are free to be excited by the black girl's defecation and to be repulsed by her animality, to accept the pyrotechnic use of Mailer's own language to imagine his murder, and to go along with Lenny when he says later that rhetorical murders are false and a sign of incomplete political thinking. The book seeks to have no life of its own, only to repulse or excite or frighten its readers.

American Mischief reads right along, dirty and brutal and effortless, but it takes four full working days to finish, and at the end I could only hope that by some miracle no one would ever feel obliged to argue with me, or with anyone, about it. (p. 21)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 NYREV, Inc.), February 8, 1973.

When a large novel is badly organized but one is nonetheless determined to praise it, one calls it "ambitious." When the same novel lacks anything resembling a moral center, giving its readers no sense of where the author stands in regard to the issues his book has raised, then one who still wishes to praise it refers to its author's "appetite for the contradictory and the bewildering." At any rate, that is how Philip Roth dealt with the most egregious flaws in Alan Lelchuk's American Mischief…. As for Alan Lelchuk, he is the man who has conducted elaborate interviews with Roth about his last two books. These interviews are notable above all for taking each book at its highest possible valuation…. When two people agree to overestimate each other, it is sometimes called love. When two writers do the same thing in print, it is called literary politics….

What of the novel itself: its content, its quality, its power as a statement about American life in our day? Set for the most part in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s, American Mischief is a work of the greatest possible contemporaneity—a book, in fact about yesterday. Its subject is the wild scrambling of values—sexual, political, ethical, social—that began to take place in American life during the middle 1960s, and that found its most active centers in university communities. The Dissolution, the Greening of America, the Shaking of the Foundation, call them what you will, these years have been crucial for America—except for the Depression, perhaps the most crucial years of the century. It is as if a cultural tidal wave had rolled in, touching everything, and even after it began to roll back, as it appears to be doing now, had left in its wake a film over every aspect of American life. It is a big subject, a throbbingly significant one, and Alan Lelchuk proposes to take on the whole of it in American Mischief. (p. 3)

"Family Talk" is the title Lelchuk gives to the dean's memoir of life with his six women, and it is written in a style intended to be wittily pornographic. Such a style demands the most sensational sexual details combined with the most humdrum commentary. Henry Miller is the father of this style in English, and it is exemplified in one of his Tropics novels when, in the midst of some extremely fancy fornication, his partner's purse drops and some coins spill out on the floor. "I made a mental note to pick them up later," Miller writes. It was funny when Miller did it; it was even amusing when Roth did it (if you didn't bother to reread it, that is); but it is funny no longer. It has all been done—and to death.

How exhausted this vein of literary pornography has become is clear when one recognizes that the mechanics of sex, never all that multifarious to begin with, now always take backseat to sundry psychological twists. The kicks, in other words, are nowadays in the kinks. (p. 8)

Toward the end of American Mischief …, Dean Kovell suggests the underlying cause of Pincus's troublemaking: "Too much Dostoevsky, I'd say." A similar, lower-level diagnosis of Alan Lelchuk's fiction comes to mind: Too much Philip Roth, I'd say…. How shriveled the novelistic vision has become over the past decades! For a novelist such as Malraux a man was the sum of his actions in the world; for such novelists as Roth and Lelchuk, a man seems to be the sum of his actions in bed.

Tolstoy once said that "anyone writing a novel must have a clear and firm idea as to what is good and bad in life." Philip Roth has said of Lelchuk that nothing so rouses him "to robust delight" as "the contemplation of confusion." Which qualifies Lelchuk as an ideal reader for his own novel, for it is a highly confused affair—as botched a piece of literature as has come along in some while. It is botched, first, in the most fundamental ways. Dialogue, plot and character are rudimentary. Everyone speaks exactly alike…. Although careful attention has been lavished on details, the plot itself, and especially the way the book ends, is slipshod and disappointing—not because Lelchuk is contemptuous of plot but because he lacked either the patience or artistry to bring it off.

It might be argued that American Mischief is not a well-made novel in the conventional sense because it is not a conventional novel—it is instead that supposedly higher and grander creation, a novel of ideas. Lelchuk gives fair warning that this is what he intends by quoting Goethe in an epigraph: "General ideas and great conceit tend always to create horrible mischief." General ideas and great conceit are the qualities Lelchuk himself appears to have in greatest abundance, and the combination, as his novel demonstrates, creates not merely horrible mischief but literary havoc.

American Mischief is long on general ideas—though the word "notions" describes them better—and short on the novelistic craft required to make them the property of fiction. It seems a book designed as a vehicle to carry the cultural clutter its author has acquired over the years…. Some of this clutter is quaintly out of fashion—as, for example, his attack on Herman Kahn, whom no one has bothered to defame since the early 1960s—and some of it is up to the moment. But in the end it is just clutter, the kind of junk a young, with-it professor of literature would, predictably, attempt to stuff into a novel. (pp. 8, 9)

[If] the novel really does die, it will be the novelists themselves who have killed it off. They will kill it, as Alan Lelchuk here kills a potentially great subject, by choosing the flashy over the serious, by inept craft, and by a narrow vision both of the novel's possibilities and of life itself. (p. 9)

Joseph Epstein, "General Ideas and Great Conceit," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 11, 1973, pp. 3, 8-9.

The first 164 pages of ["American Mischief"] … [take] the form of a sexual memoir … [which] is spicier than anything Timothy Leary could have brought back from the spiritworld, [but which] becomes pure boredom….

This first part is really a cultural sociology of the Cambridge scene in the late 1960's, though the book is unconvincingly set in the spring of 1972. It is an essay studded with case histories rather than people and could have come out in Ramparts as "Sex: A Liberal's Betrayal in His Own Words." Frankly, I had no idea what Alan Lelchuk was capable of until I came to the body of the novel. This is a fast, wily, melodramatic comedy about the Bomber Left written from a point of view that is unsure of its sympathies but finally shows itself thoroughly commercial-minded in its opportunism. With unresting provocativeness it reports a student uprising at Cardozo, the orgiastic destruction of the college museum's Pollocks, Matisses, etc., the spreading of the "revolutionary" flames to Harvard's museums, the burning of the Widener Library. Then, after a lecture by Norman Mailer at Harvard, Lenny Pincus murders Mailer in a Cambridge hotel room, just to show what the crisis of our time demands of a Mailer admirer who must exceed him—and succeed him. Lenny shoots him through the rectum.

This episode was interestingly rewritten in proof after the real Norman Mailer protested to Lelchuk….

The book ends with Lenny violently suffering in jail, all too visibly the victim of an idealism that struggled in vain against the system—of an education in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche that ill-prepared Lenny for the realities of power in America. Or for the realists on the Bomber Left.

Once he gets to Lenny himself, Mr. Lelchuk turns out to be a lively enough writer of narrative, entertaining above all in his provocativeness. For unlike [Dean] Kovell, that caricature of a dishonest father-figure, Lenny is real to Mr. Lelchuk, who loves him but doesn't know what to think of the outrages he brashly has him commit. But the reason Mr. Lelchuk loves Lenny is that this is a novel not about "revolution" but about fiction and fame. It is a book less about the contest between fiction and reality—Lenny's stated problem—than it is about well-known American writers as characters. I don't know another current novel that is so much about the love-hate toward "established" writers. Naturally, this calls for a lot of sycophancy, too. (p. 2)

Mr. Lelchuk is too intellectual for my taste and much too conscious of the latest intelligence in the academy, where the far-out is always in style, too late. Mr. Lelchuk is a novelist with no voice of his own, no point of view that gets to the reader after so many ritual sacrifices of libraries, museums—and other writers. The "treatment" of the out-of-date campus uprising is tentatively satiric but finally settles on the tragedy of poor Lenny. From his preoccupation with intellectuals, critics, literary sons and fathers, I would guess that Mr. Lelchuk, though openly opportunistic to the point of doing himself in, does have a real theme. Lenny is offered as a tragedy because he is young, brought up on fiction and, with these two inadequate weapons, has taken on "America" itself.

Of course Lenny hasn't taken on anything but his own consciousness raising. So to give the book drama, it becomes a try-out of profanation. The "Jewish novel" must go. Jewish intellectuals must go. That devil Isaac must now drag poor old Father Abraham to the place of execution—and will not let him off. All the old (Jewish) culture authorities must go. Among the intellectuals kidnapped to the New Left camp in New Hampshire for re-education are the authors of "Communitas" and "The Liberal Imagination"; the latter especially is made to look superfluous to the "revolutionary" generation, just as Mailer must be shot in the most demeaning way possible.

And yet the profanation is never serious, coming as it does, not from Nazis who did burn libraries and murder authors, but from Lenny Pincus. The profanation is unserious, too, because while Mr. Lelchuk clearly suggests that Lenny did his best, that Lenny is quite noble, that Lenny was done in at the end by an America unworthy of him, Mr. Lelchuk himself seems as audience-conscious, as up-to-the-minute as Johnny Carson, Abbie Hoffman, Germaine Greer and the latest professor scornfully announcing the death of literature to a cheering group at the Modern Language Association. What terrors to the status quo! Or as Lenny Pincus's mother could have said about him, "Such a radical!" (p. 3)

Alfred Kazin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973.

American Mischief is one of those rare first novels that achieves prior to publication the kind of scandalous notoriety that assures for a work and its author such few good things as the literary life has to offer….

The center of the scandal is the appearance, in a small but pivotal role, of Norman Mailer…. [From] the book's style, from its incompetent attempts to demonstrate the relationships between the ideas of its major figures and their sexual behavior, one has a sense that Lelchuk crawled out from under Mailer's overcoat—or at least the one he wore while writing Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, An American Dream—that Lelchuk is taking him on, much as Hemingway once claimed to have engaged in combat with his masters, Turgenev and Flaubert among them. The difference here being that Hemingway never put words in their mouths, placed them as historical figures in extreme fictional situations, and attempted to imagine how they might respond.

This, too, represents a kind of perverse homage to Mailer. For if he was one of the leaders of the movement to apply the techniques of the novel to the writing of journalism, why is it not equally cricket to use him—or, more precisely, his journalistic persona (which, paradoxically, is a partially fictional creation in the making of which he has enthusiastically conspired)—in a fiction? And having done that, why can't you bring Paul Goodman on to make a speech to Harvard students, or show Leonard Bernstein having a hysterical breakdown while conducting a concert, or imagine that Red Auerbach, general manager of the Boston Celtics, has written a dumb-jock letter to one of your characters?

Legally, of course, it's possible, given the doctrine that the price of celebrity is surrender of most of one's rights to privacy. And since Mailer and Bernstein, at least, have worked hard to achieve that status, one doesn't feel too sorry for them. (Auerbach, a quiet man not much known outside his field, is a different matter; and I'd be willing to contribute instantly to a legal fund for him to bring a test case against Lelchuk for making him look stupid….) (p. 49)

Lelchuk has the bad ear that betrays his breeding. He cannot accurately reproduce, let alone parody, something as simple to handle as a New York Times news story or one of its editorials. No more can he capture, let alone satirize, the rich, full absurdity of intellectuals engaged in the tribal ceremony of a panel discussion. And despite a breezy, knowing manner about social details, he mixes them up….

But the failure in matters of this kind, though telling, is insignificant compared to his structural failures….

[There] is too much … inner [debating], and [the debates] are too crudely stated, too repetitive to hold our interest…. [The protagonists] never engage in the kind of conflict that might (a) meld the two major sections of the book together; (b) explicitly state the novelist's position in regard to the issues he raises (implicitly, I think, he favors "the kids," but he also knows who reviews books in this country); or (c) break through the thick crust of his own rhetoric and show us his people acting, living waywardly, impulsively, contradictorily as people—even liberal professors and student activists—really do in life. Only in the passages dealing with sexual congress does he write with any excitement or real feeling, and that seems to me largely voyeuristic in character. For the rest, he attains at best a prosody and a level of insight no higher than that of journalism. And not Mailerian journalism, either; it's more the sort you get on Sundays when the boys are writing from the clips….

[This] is certainly fit country for a novelist to traverse, no question about that; that a sensitive psychological probing of both the liberal academic mind and the student radical one is currently in order, and that the failure … is perhaps the most lamentable of the many failures of American Mischief. (p. 50)

Richard Schickel, "Tailing Mailer and Other Literary Mischief," in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1973, pp. 49-50.

American Mischief … is one of those success-story books—the kind (and they are much rarer than one is apt to think) that through concentrated planning and a good deal of luck enjoy a lot of newsy publicity and fashionable chatter and invested money well before their public launchings (usually called "literary events") as physical, purchasable objects with printed pages that you and I might actually read.

American Mischief was known about in the book trade last summer; the paperback rights had been bought for a rumored fortune, the book clubs were talking about almost nothing else …, and Philip Roth, who doesn't spread his praise lightly, had decided to go all out for it. "A brilliant and original comedy," he wrote…. No novelist has written with such knowledge and eloquence of the consequences of carnal passion in Massachusetts since The Scarlet Letter."

As if all that weren't enough, others clambered aboard the bandwagon with enthusiastic references to The Possessed, Look Homeward, Angel, and The Naked and the Dead. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Germaine Greer, Bernard Malamud, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer—Wow! That's practically everybody except Shakespeare and Dick Tracy. And Lady Luck. But she was not far behind; in fact, she arrived in the form of Norman Mailer, who, with lawyers assembled, protested. (p. 75)

Well, ancient history; but worth outlining here for several reasons…. American Mischief … has genuine literary and intellectual quality. But it also has had, because of all the chatter and money and scandal involved in it, a great handicap. And that is simple bloodlust: after all the noise, if the book didn't measure up to the highest standards (a Dostoevsky, no less), it would be attacked. And attacked it has been, with all the proper genuflections to disappointment and, behind that, with a certain amount of (only human) satisfaction. (pp. 75-6)

Now … suppose such a work of literature comes along and one finds it simply, literally, unreadable. That is, one finds that little chunks of it are aptly phrased, acutely insightful, delightfully intelligent and clever and funny (this guy is no hack), and even fashionably "relevant" (a dopey word, by the way)—but one simply cannot, no matter how hard one tries, sit down and read the whole thing through, from beginning to end…. Is one simply refusing to read? … American Mischief comes as a new, ready-made classic; it turns out to be, among other things, good and bad, immensely repetitive and boring. We have all stumbled through books that are boring and thought the better of ourselves for doing so, but this is a book that, above all else, was supposed to be anything but boring. In sum, the expectations that have been instilled for American Mischief by calculation and happenstance—all quite outside the book itself—that have made the book a success in the first place and brought it to everybody's attention, have also had the greatest part in doing it in. The other part, I am afraid, does—and at last—belong to the author.

American Mischief is clever, funny, and fashionable. It is set in the environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and everything is named, from the very real Harvard Square restaurant, Chez Dreyfus, to the murdered writer, Norman Mailer. Or almost everything: much of the action takes place at Cardozo College, an apparent misspelling of Brandeis University; and there are various luminaries (Lionel Trilling, Paul Goodman) who are not named but who are easily identifiable by those "in the know." There are references to Marx, Hegel, Freud, and the Charles River, so everybody should be quickly clued in that this is no dumbbunny story. (pp. 76-7)

[In] a variety of ways the book can stand as a definitive monograph on feces—the meanings of, the metaphors about, enticements to, their political and literary transcendental possibilities, etc….

[The story] is, of course, fleshed out with a lot of sex and cruelty and violence and names…. Plus the irony. Now the irony is very rich indeed: the viewpoint is Pincus's, through which we see, ironically, Kovell's, and then, way back, through the mists, Alan Lelchuk's. His viewpoint turns out to be—oh, say, akin to Katherine Anne Porter's in Ship of Fools, or to Shakespeare's "What fools these mortals be"; you get the idea. Actually, it's not so much a viewpoint as 501 pages of raised eyebrow….

Had [the book] been condensed to 150 less self-indulgent pages, it might have been far better; it also might never have been a book club selection or enjoyed Roth's praise or Mailer's disgruntlement, or been heard about every again. Life is unfair. (p. 77)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 17, 1973.

American Mischief is 500 pages of unremitting explicitness and tendentious detail, but for all the recipes of realism, it reads like pure fantasy. (p. 94)

The point about realistic novels, of course, is that they have to be realistic. American Mischief is realistic only in method, not in substance. If the novel had been written by the Nabokov of Pale Fire, we could have read it as though Lenny Pincus and Bernie Kovell had invented each other. If it had been written by the Vonnegut of Breakfast of Champions, the author and his fantasies would have been transformed by the fiction. If it had been written by the Kosinski of The Painted Bird, we could have read it as a representation of how our fantasies about the lust and cruelty of student radicals have contaminated what goes for reality. But the realistic method will not allow us to read the novel in any of these ways. The method will not allow for the uncanny. And it is precisely the uncanny world of multiple unrealities as represented in the work of modernist writers that protects us from being conned or bullied by the fantasies of reality-instructors such as Alan Lelchuk. (p. 95)

George Stade, in Harper's (copyright 1973 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1973 issue by special permission), May, 1973.

At some point in Miriam at Thirty-Four, one of the novel's supporting characters—a painter and front-runner in Miriam's stable of lovers—delivers himself of a diatribe about the egregiousness of critics. His outburst has been provoked by the hostile reception with which his own work has been greeted by those (as he himself would have it) who are too pietistic to understand his treatment of the erotic and who lack the artistic imagination necessary to appreciate a brilliant talent like his own.

Mr. Lelchuk's fantasies notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Miriam at Thirty-Four will provoke much outrage; a lot of it is, in fact, "dirty," but it is rather ridiculous for him to intimate that sex scenes could raise eyebrows—let alone inspire puritanical fury—in 1974. If this very silly novel does, like Mr. Lelchuk's first novel, go largely unappreciated, it may solace him to believe that he is being victimized by deficiencies ingrained in the American spirit. Anyone who reads his book, however, will know better. (p. 26)

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 16, 1974.

At a time when feminism is flourishing and Freud is enjoying a new respectability in its ranks, this novel [Miriam at Thirty-Four] about a 34-year-old intellectual whose just-discovered sexuality turns her life around might seem to offer intriguing possibilities. Instead, reading it made me feel as though I'd walked up to a handsomely-decorated building and, a couple of hours later, found myself dumped smartly into the back alley, glaring back in wonder that the facade had turned out to be hollow and most of the inhabitants glib hired hands. Let us at once avoid confusion: female sexuality is hardly the private property of female writers …, but Alan Lelchuk's exploitation of its concept in this novel leaves readers holding a bag of demonstration sex scenes and pretentious modern moralizing while the author has slipped out to the latest Sam Peckinpah/Clint Eastwood double feature….

The serious writer who wants his audience to witness detailed sex and then the punishment and humiliation of a central character has a delicate task indeed. He must at all cost avoid the easy voyeurism that he risks, the idea that this kind of pleasure and punishment is simply titillating and thus deserving of detail. More important, novels and movies that specialize in lengthily-depicted violence as retribution against their central characters—often blameless innocents—justifiably irritate audiences because they implicate us in the rage of their creators, rage that seems to miss its real targets and splatter off the page or the screen onto us.

This novel depends on our recognition of up-to-the-minute cultural and political trappings instead of developing character or plot; being subjected to the detailed, self-sought rape of the central character while the author insists that he is really exploring the ironies and tragedies of female masochism and his heroine's conflict between new pleasure and old self-hatred, goes considerably beyond irritation. The narrative emerges as the same old innocent-town-tramp-gets-gang-raped plot to me, and since bad-girl mythology has it that punishment must follow innocent pleasure, it's punishment that Miriam gets, in spite of her author's assurance that she has a right to her own sexuality. And it's in the intensity of this punishment that we can see clearly that the novel's supporting characters—Cambridge intellectuals, artists, rather smugly-typed women's movement figures, Miriam's lovers—have all been used to debase the character whose sexuality they've either denied or encouraged.

Pleasure and punishment aside, if possible, the truth is that people just don't exist as simply sexual beings, and Lelchuk's attempt to depict them that way ends up in tired stereotyping—the groovily free 19-year-old flower child who has attracted and liberated a bright and awesomely, to the author, well-credentialed middle-aged professor, the aggressive, hard-line "heavy" at the women's meeting who must, therefore, turn out to be a lesbian, the handsome Middle American who makes love so well that he's got to be dumb. The author never succeeds in granting any of the characters, with the exception of the repressive ex-husband, more than fleeting dimension.

A final but not niggling trouble is that this novel is remarkably, almost amusingly, class-bound; it assumes with a straight face that its readers are as impressed with such phenomena as Harvard degrees, profitable academic prestige at 33, and even fashionable furniture, as are its approved, non-authoritarian characters (the authoritarian ones fare far less fashionably). It is thus especially hard to attribute more substance to the extravagantly described sex scenes than to the Design Research decor or the marinated fresh fish and asparagus in hollandaise sauce. This kind of detail should be absorbing at least from the perspective of upper middle-class social history—we can listen entranced to a cataloguing of what people wore to a wedding or the contents of the menu at a dinner party, for what they tell us about the lives of the people who were there—but here it's strictly a prestigious stage set, to be struck as soon as Miriam moves off toward the violence Lelchuk has in store for her.

For all its smart patter (there's a lot) about liberated sexuality, the clenched quality with which this novel demonstrates its concerns is weirdly out of synch with its apparent surface, as though an elaborately casual hipster were telling a German fairy tale. And in presenting Miriam and everyone else in only one dimension—the sexual—Lelchuk has at once sensationalized and trivialized the culture and the character whose life he means to illuminate. (p. 50)

Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1974.

Lelchuk's novel [Miriam at Thirty-Four] hasn't made a splash on the book-front, but certainly could be the perfect object for ideological squabble: the Liberated Woman is likely to see this as one male's cheapshot revenge on her sex—reducing "liberation" to sexual freedom, then doing in the freewheeling practitioner. On the other hand, the book fits perfectly into the hands of anyone sick to death of the cant of Finding Oneself, even at the Radcliffe Institute for Women; or one muses that anybody who runs around Cambridge taking that many pictures (Miriam is a serious photographer) deserves what happens to her.

Yet the real problem is not ideology but style, and here perhaps opposed temperaments could find common meeting-place. Even if Lelchuk is eventually out to punish his heroine, he early on establishes full complicity with her through his style…. (pp. 149-50)

As with Lelchuk's previous American Mischief, the present novel is superb in its presentation of Greater Boston, particularly the "accepted insanities" of Cambridge. But onto this realistic, scenic base is grafted Tall Story Superstructure; Kovell in the earlier book had six lovers, and Miriam here has three, alternating—a sort of Ginger Rogers Tom, Dick and Harry movie brought up to date thirty-five years later…. Lots of fun, but you can't move from this atmosphere to parables of self-destruction [or] self-fulfillment. At least I couldn't. (pp. 150-51)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.

Like John Dos Passos, Alan Lelchuk may become the chronicler of our cultural fancies. American Mischief, his first novel, fictionalized the vagaries of student revolution in the sixties, and Miriam at Thirty-Four is meant to do the same for women caught in the throes of feminism. His heroine, Miriam Scheinman (M.S.) has some interesting edges. (p. 118)

[At the end of the novel], she is raped and left naked except for a sweater, a long shirt, and [her] cap. Afterward she walks into an ice cream parlor with the shirt tied round her waist and sits down, obviously naked but still wearing the cap. This last scene is the final dare in a series of dares out of which Lelchuk makes his novel.

To begin with, he appropriates the plot of the standard feminist narrative: woman wakes up in empty trough of marriage and leaves husband to find identity. With your attention on this convention, his next dare is to shift the content of the plot so that Miriam maximizes her liberation not as much by her professional competence—she is a photographer—as by her sexual liaisons with her three male lovers. This does make men rather more central than orthodox feminism (a shadowy antagonist in the novel) might wish…. Lastly, when the novel of a woman who has discovered how to use her power in bed ends by her being gang-raped, it invites the suggestion that someone is seeing to it that she is punished.

But these dares are only drawing cards for the main show in which the novelist replaces certain simplistic feminist notions with his own formulations. Which is fine except for the last scene in the ice cream parlor. One would like to believe that this novel of a woman's many successes over her repressive training ends with yet another triumph: by her public appearance over ice cream, the heroine tacitly acknowledges what feminists have been slow to see—that rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman and that to see it as catastrophic is to acquiesce in the identification of a woman with her body.

And if Miriam's liberation comes through her body at first, her final scene read in this way would put the body in perspective…. But Lelchuk has actually only rewritten the oldest of stories: the one which identifies the worst that can happen to a woman with the violation of her body. The half-naked Miriam is having ice cream because she is half-crazy. It's the standard refrain: a woman's spirit is punished in the body.

This is the tired conclusion to what began as a frisky essay on women. As a novel it bears the same relation to the art of fiction as textbook sex does to the art of love. There is an absence of felt life, which is all right in an essay or a sex manual but is definitely not all right in either art or love. And although one might accept the novelist's thesis that some women (but by no means all, as he implies) needs to be liberated from sexual shyness more than from anything else, his fiction does nothing to engage and convince the imagination.

Lelchuk's style is so lumpy that background information about the characters is frequently delivered in parentheses near their names—as if the writer ordered out for it, and it arrived late. The sexual language appears soiled, like the cue lines in someone's jerk-off book…. It is hard to see how sex written of in this way can appear liberating; it is more in the line of hard work—a subject better suited to Lelchuk's talents, judging from the good passages about Miriam's photography.

The pity of all this is that the novelist has expended a great deal of sympathy and energy in this portrait of a woman without ever establishing fictional roots which will allow his ideas to take hold. (p. 120)

Elizabeth Turner Pochoda, "The Oldest Story Ever Told," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), April, 1975, pp. 118, 120.