I Would Have Saved Them If I Could

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Writing Against Yourself: On Leonard Michaels’s Nachman Stories

I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so.  One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work.  Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations.  Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone.

So it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves.  In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new.  Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan’s Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly.  Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense.  The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures.  After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog — large in scope, large in voice.  Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil.  But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful — though somewhat clumsy and abortive — stab at smallness and bathos.

Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts.  And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories.

The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades).  These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery.  And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote.

Michaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions:  love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death.  Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content — “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.”  Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack.  They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor.

I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story.  In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street.  One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories.  The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers — a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment.

Michaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence:  “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.”  This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual.  The story proceeds as you might imagine:  sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex.

In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.”  In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police.  Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics.  Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.”  Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates:
I’m not married.  I have no secrets.  I don’t gossip.  I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures.  It’s arguable that I’m a freak.  You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious.
The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women.  He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.”

Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character — happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica — is arresting.  It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire.  To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime.

What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts?  In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it — Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life.  The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down.

“Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard.  This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil — should he tell Norbert and how?  And why does it bother him so?  The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity.  He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences.  It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her.

The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical.  It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into — if not the spiritual — the mystical.  Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world.  In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem.  Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist?  He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat.  Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end.

The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference.  While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay.  “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories:
His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific.  He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness.  He didn’t yearn for its embrace.
It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose.  Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul.  The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere — background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

A Brief History of the Colloquial Title

It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.

What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.

And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.

There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.

Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.

1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.

William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.

Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.

Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.

David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.

2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.

William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.

Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.

Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.

Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.

3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:

In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.

Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.

William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.

Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.

Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.

Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.

4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.

Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.

Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.

Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.

Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.

Surprise Me!

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