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Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

May 31, 2015


“In 1960, after two years of graduate school at Berkeley, I returned to New York without a Ph.D. or any idea of what I’d do, only a desire to write stories.” So begins this short novel about a young couple struggling to find their way together in New York City. He is, as he says, a writer, “an overspecialized man, twenty-seven years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say ‘I love to read.’” The woman is a friend of a friend, Sylvia. Long, black hair, exotic features, sometimes distant, sometimes cold, sometimes passionate, often moody.

They fall in love, move into a small, cold apartment. They struggle, are unprepared for life in New York, life in the 60s, mostly life with each other. Sylvia clearly suffers from severe depression, and the narrator seems to suffer from some issues himself. He finds comfort when a friend tells him that he and his wife also fight often. He takes that as a sign that their daily blowouts are normal. But he is just naïve. From the outside, we can see how terrible they are, in particular how terrible Sylvia is to him.

This is all told in wonderfully poetic prose that captures the bleak loneliness of the relationship and the disorienting effects of 1960s culture. The Cold War, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Mickey Mantle, Elvis, Allen Ginsberg. Morals are loose, drugs are easy, sex is pervasive. There is nothing for the couple to anchor onto, so they cling to each other, adrift and self-destructive.

Describing one of Sylvia’s friends: “Her voice, kept low and dull to suggest feminine reserve, suggested instead a low-voltage brain and morbidity. Her complexion, embalmed for years in cosmetic chemicals, had the texture of tofu.” This could describe the relationship between the narrator and Sylvia. Putting on airs, faking it, communicating everything with an acerbic tone and at least an implied, if not stated, judgmental attack. It leads to a numbed, nihilistic existence. It’s like a mix of The Stranger and an urban version of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

The book is based on a memoir, which makes me feel bad for Michaels. The only big flaw in the book is that in the 2007 re-printing by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the introduction by Diane Johnson reveals the ending. What a stupid, infuriating decision to reveal the book’s major plot twist at the beginning! But otherwise, a good, if unsettling, short read.

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