Dysfunction is gripping in ‘Sylvia: a novel’ | AspenTimes.com

Dysfunction is gripping in ‘Sylvia: a novel’

Charles Agar
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Long before the word “dysfunction” was a household name, Leonard Michaels and his wife were living it, and Michael’s book “Sylvia: a novel” tells the tale.

Michaels, who died in 2003, was a professor and author of other collections including “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could” and “Going Places” as well as the novel “The Men’s Club.” Called a “memoir in story form” by its author, “Sylvia” was recently released to coincide with the publishing of Michaels’ “Collected Stories.””Sylvia: a novel” is a short, evocative chronicling of two wayward 20-somethings as they try to make their way in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.The protagonist and Sylvia (her last name is never mentioned in the story) latch onto one another and don’t let go through three years of fights and insanity.

Michaels evokes a Manhattan of another time, when rents were low and the island was in fact an island of liberalism inhabited by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce.And Michaels’ skill is in painting the picture of the roach-infested tenement and the confounding relationship between the unlikely pair, their violent fights ending in passionate sex or a trip to a matinee movie.I wanted to shout at the lovers the same way I want to yell “Don’t open that door!” during a horror movie, and that’s what was captivating: Watching someone make the same kind of foolish decisions we all do. The difference is that this protagonist’s bad decisions are really bad and involve drugs, violence and self-destruction.

And throughout the story he bangs away at his typewriter while his severely disturbed young wife lobs proverbial grenades at him. Michaels also records certain memories in a secret journal, saying things like, “I don’t want to love her anymore. Too hard. I’m not good enough.”It’s the protagonist’s hyper-awareness coupled with his indifference that carries this story. Despite the suffering, he stays with Sylvia not out of a sense of duty but because he doesn’t know what else to do; the retrospective look at himself reads as though he is describing a car wreck that he just couldn’t avoid.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.


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