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Leonard Michaels, Literature’s Lost Cryptologist

Len Michaels’ rigorous prose and brutal situations, lost in the cipher of literary trends…

There are American writers that everyone knows, or at least can comfortably pretend to know: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Bellow, Delillo, Roth, Updike, Pynchon, McCarthy, to name a few. Then there is the class of writer, particularly in America, that gains some level of contemporary success, often culminating with an interesting but minor novel of some kind, only to have their star fade with age. Far too often, the death of their generation’s promise signals the death of their works’ place on the bookstore shelf. 

Don’t you forget about me…

This was the fate of Leonard Michaels. A short story writer, novelist, essayist and sometime script writer, Michaels was a contemporary of somewhat similarly toned and inherently more prolific Americans such as Bellow, Roth and Updike. Perhaps because Michaels’ output was dwarfed by most in an increasingly crowded American literary marketplace during the 1970’s and 80’s, although well reviewed and respected by his peers, he quickly drifted into obscurity. In the early 1990’s, Michaels did release well a regarded collection of short fiction (Shuffle) and a memoir about the suicide of his wife (Sylvia - which was originally published in shorter form within Shuffle, and then expanded and novelized for it’s own proper publication). Michaels did work as a professor of English at Berkley and occasionally published a short piece over the next decade, until his death in 2003. But for the better part of 20 years Leonard Michaels was slowly slipping into the abyss of the ‘minor literary talent’ pile.

Which one of us is playing Lenny Michaels? You, Roy?

So it was a pleasant surprise then in the summer of 2008 that  Michaels’ gatekeepers at FSG began to reprint his back catalogue, beginning with his first novel The Men’s Club (which was made into a film), as well as an astonishingly complete collection of his short fiction, entitled ‘Collected Stories’. They thankfully did not stop there, having subsequently released an excellent collection of Michael’s poignant, frank and odd essays in 2010. 

Michaels is well known amongst those familiar with his work for being extremely careful about his prose and for setting up painfully human situations that are not only uncomfortably familiar but also leave a lingering sense of dread and anxiety, but not without a spoonful of rye wit and longing for more. The term ‘writers’ writer’ is bandied about quite a bit when talking about Michaels. 

An excellent example of the aforementioned ‘preciseness’ of his prose and the excruciating nature of his character’s predicament can be found in these virtual pages of the New Yorker. Also, this same story, the wonderfully enigmatically entitled Cryptology, can be listened to here. It is read by Canadian author Rivka Galchen, who’s 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances has a certain Michaels-esque quality to it. It was no surprise to hear during her preamble to reading the story for the New Yorker that she was reading quite a bit of Michaels when she was writing her book. 

Limited edition of 300 of the Nachman Stories by Arion Press, 450 bucks.

One can’t help but to want to devour all of Michaels’ output in the aftermath of discovering him. A good place to start, of course, is the Collected Short Fiction, and in particular the Nachman stories, of which Cryptology is one. In fact, Cryptology is the last story that Michaels ever wrote. All of the previous Nachman stories were written towards the end of Michaels’ life (from the late 90’s onward) and feature Ralph Nachman, a mathematician who’s struggles with the large and small scale questions of life both frustrate and invigorate. But his essays should not be overlooked either. You may read one of them, which is about his father, here.

Also, certainly worth reading is author David Bezmozgis' essay about his kinship and love for Michaels' work. It can be found here.

There is an interesting interview with an editor at Harpers from 2007, that functions as a plea for more attention to be paid to Michaels’ work. It can be found here. Interestingly, the Nachman stories are also recommended as a primer in this interview.

Lastly, an essay that has not been collected, which is decidedly ‘spiritual’ in nature (fittingly published by the Buddhist review Tricycle), called The Wheel, can be found here.

Let us hope that this renewed reverence for and accessibility of Leonard Michaels’ work will help his legacy take a firmer grasp on the steep banks of 20th century American literature. 

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