Apr 052010

My children have been on vacation for the last week (and today).  This has meant my dual role as a stay-at-home Dad and student tilted heavily in favor of the former title.  Nonetheless, I found a few free minutes to read some of Leonard Michaels’ short stories from his collection, A Girl with a Monkey.  Michaels’ prose is very clean, often almost curt, yet there’s a lightness to his writing too, a humor that surprises and energizes his stories.  In the title story, a young man, Beard, falls in love with Inger, a prostitute in Berlin.  Beard buys her a pair of very expensive earrings with money from his inheritance.  The prostitute disappears before he can give her the earrings, then he loses them, before finally meeting up with Inger again on a train.  They proceed to have sex in the train compartment, and the story ends.  This story had a very traditional development, with conflict-resolution patterns developing in repeated scenes.   This surprised me somewhat, because Michaels was one of the writers I looked at for my critical thesis on ‘outlier’ or experimental forms of short stories.

The story “Second Honeymoon” primarily involves two men working at a Catskills honeymoon hotel.  The narrator, a busboy, admires the waiter named Larry.  Larry has a tendency to bed recently married guests, and the story opens with him offering his charms to Sheila, whose husband is a podiatrist.  Larry appears to be a shallow, beautiful man, but as more of the story unfurls, the depth of Larry and the narrator comes through.  This story ran long (30 pages), and was a post-publication revision of a story originally titled “Honeymoon.”

I also just finished reading “Tell Me Everything,” a story about a woman’s fascination with a famous novelist (Claude Rue) who delivers a boring lecture on his novel.  (One wonders at what point the novelist achieves such rock star status?)  The woman then runs off with this writer, abandoning her friend, has boring sex with him, but falls madly in love.  She then recounts her exploits to the narrator after they have occurred.  I found this technique to be unusual…he uses double quotation marks yet reports the dialogue in a traditional way:

He said, “‘A great disorder is an order.’”

(I think that might even be an aphorism?)  The story ends with Rue accusing Margaret of stealing an heirloom watch, which she finds in her couch.

Michaels’ stories have this oddly appealing voice.  There’s a detached humor throughout, down to the level of what’s actually happening.  After writing about “In the Fifties” for the thesis, with its list-style narration and its subdued characterization, these more traditional stories helped round out my impression of Michaels.

—Richard Farrell

  4 Responses to “Spring Break & Girls with Monkey(s): Essay — Richard Farrell”

  1. Have you read Sylvia his short novel/fictional memoir? It’s heartbreaking, but the descriptions are beautiful and there is a crisp sound to the sentences. It took me a few attempts to get through it. The author is so bare on the page and the expression so raw that I needed to cover my eyes and turn away.

  2. It’s now on my list. Thank you. When did he write it? “Bare on the page”
    …very well stated.

  3. It’s on my list now too. Last month I read In the Fifties and wrote a similar essay, In the Eighties. Rich, do you think I could read your thesis when it’s done?

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