Leonard Michaels Michaels, Leonard (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leonard Michaels 1933–

American short story writer and novelist.

Michaels's two collections of short stories, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, attain their impact by contrasting ordinary events in the lives of middle-class Americans with unsuspected, surrealistic violence. Michaels's bizarre humor, in which critics see various literary influences, balances the otherwise grim theme of his works: the lack of meaning in modern life.

His first novel, The Men's Club, is written in a format similar to The Canterbury Tales; the characters take turns telling the story of their lives. While some critics found The Men's Club too episodic, others lauded Michaels for his success in evoking the changing personality of a group from awkwardness, to intimacy, and then to something primitive—a Lord of the Flies transposed to California.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Going Places suffers from being unable to take itself seriously….

The best story in the group, "Going Places," leaves a man named Beckman on the brink of an ordeal he will overcome, and we are reminded of Christ in Concrete and other horrendous tales of physical suffering in which a man's wits and strength are reduced to nothing much, and only his will remains.

Other stories deal with a trio of pop characters or non-characters, Phillip, Henry, and the stuttering pathetic girl they share or seem to share, Margery. It is here that Michaels's talent fails him, for he simply cannot make us share a sustained interest in the wacky dialogue and the wackier activities of these three. And story after story resolves itself in comic violence, fights or orgies or self-annihilating tricks ("I started eating my face"). Charming though the bizarre antics may seem in the first few stories, they become largely tedious and unconvincing as the volume goes on and we realize that nothing, nothing is impossible because there is nothing on the page except words.

Michaels shows the influence of Malamud, but most obviously that of Donald Barthelme and Philip Roth. His own whimsical, antic style needs something harder behind it, something less arbitrary and less cartoon-like, if it is going to create fiction in proportion to his obvious intelligence.

Joyce Carol Oates, "Please Tell Me It's Just a Story," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1969 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), March 30, 1969, p. 6.

Laurence Lieberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The key events in [Leonard Michaels' first collection of short stories, Going Places]—usually holocausts in the lives of his protagonists—are indistinguishable from the settings in which they occur. Settings are felt to be a physical extension of the agonized victims who inhabit them. I am constantly reminded by Michaels' emblematic stage sets that no other time and no other place could have fostered precisely the form or quality of torture that strikes the persona dumb, dead, or fiercely awake—excruciatingly alive for the first time…. These are not simply locales, settings—traditional background—ever. Life does not merely occur in these machines, edifices; life transfigures the forms that enshrine its daily happening, the forms merging with the bodies they enclose, altering and entering into their life stream.

In "Going Places," the title story, Michaels realizes a totally plastic, epidermal style. Every sentence is charged with a tactility of phrasing that suggests oddly that words are somehow being alchemized into skin. It is a style that gives new significance, a new literalness, to the expression, he put a skin on everything he said….

In two of the stories, "Crossbones" and "Intimations," Michaels is perhaps inventing a new genre, which may stand in the same relation to the conventional story as does the story, say, to the novella. The short-short form appropriates the compression and density of lyric poetry and brings them into fiction. Only a couple of pages in length, these stories need to be reread many times, and...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

William C. Hamlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Leonard Michaels] is a very funny man. Given a world where "no one feels anymore," where there is "no connection with elemental life," humor would appear out of place. On the contrary, [the stories in Going Places] remind us that humor is one of the few things that does have a place. Otherwise, as less resourceful fiction demonstrates, an overdose of anguish can become routine, even dull.

Mr. Michaels himself is never dull. His ability to set the commonplace alongside the unexpected and horrifying … demonstrates the maddening disorientation of modern man. Carefully controlled but always giving the impression of associative freedom, his prose drives from one fresh image to another. It tells us again and again that in spite of the odds against it, something is being said, not completely to be sure, nothing final, but something natural and necessary.

Comparisons with the free-flowing style of Donleavy, with the raw nerve ends of Salinger, with the scenic horrors of Purdy and O'Connor, with the overall range of Malamud are obvious and to the credit of the writer.

William C. Hamlin, "On the Brink," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1969, p. 49.

Ronald Christ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Leonard Michaels' stories in Going Places] present a weirdly heightened world where simple acts and feelings are translated into nightmarish reality by means of a distinctive style that gives substance to humorous, horrifying whimsy. "Only a dream, but so is life," remarks the narrator in "Sticks and Stones."… Just as in dreams, embarrassment, frustration, crazy violence and agony of mind expressed as torment of body are the stuff of these stories; but also as in dreams, everything is madly, pathetically funny—not to the dreamer of course, but to us who read the dream…. The balance between the plaintively humorous and the grotesquely sad is what gives full dimension to Michaels' fiction—that and a charged language in which every sentence surprises so vigorously that you will hold your breath just waiting to see if he can keep it up. He can.

Emily Dickinson said a good poem would blow off the top of your head; A. E. Housman said it would make your whiskers bristle; but one of Michaels' own characters offers the best norm for these stories: "I could say things about you that would make your nipples pucker." They do just that, and the shock of your visceral response will keep you coming back to Going Places to feast on a rare talent in perfect control of its power. The book's title tells you all you need to know about the career of this young writer. (p. 571)

Ronald Christ, "Books: 'Going Places'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XC, No. 21, September 19, 1969, pp. 570-71.

Elliot L. Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Going Places, Leonard Michaels has given us what must surely be one of the longest 192-page books of short stories ever written. And since this remark, intended as a compliment, may be open to misinterpretation, let me quickly add that the apparent extraordinary length of the volume is the result not of any … longueurs in the work but of a narrative and stylistic density so marked that it causes whole worlds to form, pass through their cycles, and vanish away on a single page. Where, for example, most writers, dedicated to capturing the synaptic leap on paper—but worried, perhaps, about not being understood—work as hard to reproduce the nerve fibers as they do to depict the energy that passes between them, Michaels, in some sort of haunted hurry (going places?), concentrates entirely on rendering the electric charge as it jumps the gap. (p. 422)

Taken together, the pieces present a sometimes surrealistic, frequently very funny vision of that particular brand of New York-Jewish hysteria about which one might have supposed very little new could be said. But Michaels brings to what is today familiar enough material (boy meets girl at a neighborhood orgy) a compression of language and an intensity of imagery which constitute the real excitement of this first book. (pp. 422-23)

Michaels' virtuoso style runs to dazzling cinematic jump cuts ("Isaac") and to flashbacks ("Sticks and Stones") so complex and intentionally confusing as to obliterate any sense the reader may desperately be trying to retain of "real" time. But these familiar devices for undercutting the illusion of process and causality in fiction are in these pieces entirely functional. That is, the writer is obviously committed on every level of his work to the vision of things which his...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Anthony Decurtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his two collections of short stories [Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them if I Could], Leonard Michaels depicts the contemporary struggle to shape a sensibility sufficiently intelligent, flexible, detached, and controlled to negotiate the contemporary world. The characteristic setting for his stories is New York City—the modern urban landscape, violent, unpredictable, energetic, taxing—challenging and meaningful enough to be a "vale of soulmaking," dangerous and depersonalizing enough to be a hell. Michaels criticizes the modern tendency to perceive the problems of life in such an environment as intellectual puzzles, to be resolved by calling in reserves of greater and greater amounts of...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no need to overpraise "The Men's Club." It is more novella than "important" novel. Only three of its characters are developed enough to be in any way memorable; the narrator in particular remains ghostly, his profession and participation never made credible. Toward the end, the satire of California encounter-group jargon becomes too broad … and blunts the wittiness that elsewhere prevails. But such weaknesses inflict little damage. "The Men's Club" is excellent comedy with a mouth-puckering aftertaste, a book for head-shaking and long sighs of recognition as well as laughter. Its style is full of small verbal surprises that match the glancing quality of its insights.

Evidently the shifting of his fictional scene from New York to the Bay Area has been good for Mr. Michaels's art. There is a new expansiveness, an ease, in the writing of "The Men's Club" that distinguishes it from the rather twitchy and abrasive quality of the short stories…. The literary influences so evident in the stories have now been largely assimilated. Leonard Michaels has become his own man, with his own voice and a subject substantial enough to grant his talents the scope they have needed all along. (p. 29)

Robert Towers, "Men Talking about Women," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1981, pp. 1, 28-9.

Stephen Goodwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] temptation to write a perfect novel is … natural, especially to a writer like Leonard Michaels, who comes to it by way of the short story….

The novel is the great test for a fiction writer—but a test of what? Peter Taylor, surely one of our best short story writers, once said in an interview that he suspected that a talent for the shorter form was incompatible with a novelistic talent. The novel, alas, is much messier than the short story, and some short story writers—the impeccable Borges, for one—won't touch it. The difference between the two seems to have to do with perfectibility.

The Men's Club begins as if Michaels is willing to risk imperfection. "Women...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

James Walcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Men's Club] is a talky little novella about a group of men who troop into a vine-covered Berkeley home to rake over their pasts and give their consciousness a lift. Since Michaels is one of those fiction writers overfond of toning up their prose with homages to Kafka, I waited for the book's obligatory reference to the illustrious K., and I was swiftly rewarded. Chapter Three begins: "'I wait like an ox,' says Kafka." The novella itself is a piece of Kafkaesque slapstick…. Michaels has a flair for deadpan comedy and slightly askew lyricism, but he's also capable of show-offy coarseness (as when he describes a man sucking in marijuana smoke "against crackling sheets of snot").

As a pop...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Men's Club] seems more a short story writer's idea of a novel—a mistaken idea, though understandably so, and an oversimplified one, in which the novel is seen as merely a longer form of short story. This is not longer by much, either…. It takes more time to read, but delves no further in that time; it features a larger cast of characters, but reveals no new layers within them as the story progresses. Even its considerable virtues are a short story's virtues: stunning efficiency, speedy flashes of description, and a breathtaking singleness of purpose. (p. 31)

[The] men seem poorly characterized. They can be distinguished from one another only by the grossest of quirks, a kind of...

(The entire section is 314 words.)

David Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yeats says that a civilization is a struggle for self-control. "The loss of control over thought comes toward the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation—the scream of Juno's peacock." If so, this particular civilization plainly is in deep trouble.

Cultural scouts may find suggestive evidence (if more is needed) in this remarkable, haunting, and very funny first novel by Leonard Michaels [The Men's Club]…. As the narrator, a Berkeley professor, concedes, "Men's groups. Women's groups. They suggest incurable disorders."

On the other hand, The Men's Club seems to be the kind of novel whose strategy is to...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

David Evanier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One way to evaluate a new work is to place it against works of art from other times that deal with similar subjects and settings, and determine whether the insights and achievements of those earlier works have been enlarged and built upon—whether, in fact, the work under consideration makes contemporaneous an old tale. The Iceman Cometh and That Championship Season most readily come to mind as predecessors to The Men's Club.

The Men's Club also deals mainly with a group of men in a male domain. While it is not a play, its form (it is almost entirely in dialogue rather than narration), makes it seem akin to one. And Michaels's forte is the creation of some of the most...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Carol Rumens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Men's Club is a provocative title that seems to herald male chauvinism's answer to The Women's Room and novels of that genre; a firing of defensive salvoes, perhaps, or even a counter-attack claiming that the problems caused by negative discrimination are nothing to those engendered by the positive variety. But in fact, for all its surface liveliness, Michael's novel turns out to have little to add to the increasingly lacklustre debate on sexual politics; its effect is merely to corroborate traditional views of the male and female character (female = nuturing, male = aggressive), despite a hint of tables being turned (almost literally; a dresser is crashed to the floor by an irate wife) in the final...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Corinne Robins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Men's Club is Leonard Michaels' version of a Walpurgis Night, of a Freudian male herd reborn in a group of California men, at least two of whom are aware in the hip, consciousness-raised Berkeley tradition of "feeling your own feelings." But despite the occasional use of such cliches, The Men's Club is not satire because there is more sadness than mockery in the author's treatment of such awareness, and because Michaels is too desperate and despairing a writer….

Michaels uses the psychological jargon the way he uses different ways of eating and screwing to describe, to try and reach the raw edge of being human, to examine the emotions on which human behavior turns….


(The entire section is 405 words.)