THE TROUBLE WITH THE NOVEL is that it's too much like ordinary life. Nearly every novelist since Flaubert has complained about this, but nobody -- not James, not Joyce, not Nabokov -- has been able to do much about it. The novel always reverts back to its base nature. It resists perfection as intransigently and successfully as Caliban resists Prospero.
But the temptation to write a perfect novel is also natural, especially to a writer like Leonard Michaels, who comes to it by way of the short story. Since the publication in 1969 of Going Places, his first collection of series, Michaels has had a reputation as a master of the short form. A second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, was a sort of sequel to the first, extending the fictive life of Phillip Liebowitz, the protagonist of both volumes. It's a dazzling performance, but it's easy -- especially easy in retrospect -- to see that Michaels had gone as far as he could with the energetic Liebowitz. He was ready for something new.
The novel is the great test for a fiction writer -- but a test of what? Peter Taylor, surely one of our best short story writers, once said in an interview that he suspected that a talent for the short form was incompatible with a novelistic talent. The novel, alas, is much messier than the short story, and some short story writers -- the impeccable Borges, for one -- won't touch it. The difference between the two seems to have to do with perfectibility.
The Men's Club begin as if Michaels is willing to risk imperfection. "Women wanted to talk about anger, identity, politics, etc." says the narrator, a college profesor who has just been invited to join a men's club. He balks. "I should have said yes immediately, but something in me resisted. The prospect of leaving my house after dinner to go to a meeting. Blood is heavy then. Brain is slow. Besides, wasn't this club idea corny? Like trying to recapture high school days. . . To be wretchedly truthful, any social possibility not related to wife, kids, house, and work felt like a form of adultery. Not criminal. Not legitimate."
Right away we hear the distinctive cadence of the narrator's voice and feel the strongly conflicting desires within him. He attends the meeting, of course. He tells his wife he'll be home early. "Take out the garbage," she says. Five minutes later he's in a "Berkeley living room," with a spongy orange rug, and on the wall "large acrylic paintings, abstractions like glistening viscera splashed off a butcher block." It is, the narrator tells us, a "woman's living room," filled with "ideas of happiness" and bursting "on every side with cries for attention, excitations, a maniacal fear of boredom."
Yet what takes place in this room is strangely, ruefully subdued. The seven men who've gathered there -- a doctor, a therapist, an accountant, a once-famous basketball player, all "solid types" -- cast about at first to define the purpose of their club ("To make women cry," the narrator thinks). They end up telling each other stories. They don't tell the story of their lives, though they set out to; they tell, mostly, stories about women. Kramer, the host, begins by unlocking a metal footlocker that contains, along with his papers, photographs of his women. He has had 622 women and he is still counting. The narrator looks at the pictures: "To me Kramer's women looked fundamentally the same. One poor sweetie between twenty and thirty years old forever. On a beach, leaning against a railing, a tree, a brick wall, with sun at her eyes, squinting at the camera. . . That she squinted touched me."
That sad, tender note is sounded over and over again as the others tell their stories. The form of this novel owes something to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which the pilgrims lighten their journey by telling stories. To make sure that we don't miss the connection, Michaels has named one of his characters Harold Canterbury. And to make sure that we don't miss the ironic nature of the comparison, he has made Canterbury the most silent and grudging member of the club, the most distrustful of the stories that are told.
Chaucer's stories are wonderfully artful and full of guile. They reflect the personality of the teller in a sly, singular way. The stories told at the men's club are artless and they don't reflect personality so much as they reflect a condition. "No personal information is so peculiar that it doesn't apply to millions," Canterbury says, and none of the other members of the club knows quite how to refute him.
The stories in The Men's Club may not apply to millions -- the members are white, prosperous, and more or less monogamous -- but almost any of the stories could be told by any member of the club. They all speak in a direct, muted voice like the narrator's (the only exception is Kramer, poor Kramer, who is, like, very Californian). And while the characters are very distinct from one another physically, Michaels calls attention to their similarities rather than their differences. He wants us to recognize that their stories are common property, ours as well as theirs.
He also wants us to recognize that the stories have no point. Several times during the evening, one of the men begins to speak with enthusiasm, only to realize that the story doesn't lead anywhere. "I start to talk, thinking there is a point, and then it never arrives. What is it, anyhow, this point? Things happen. You remember. That's all." So the stories in The Men's Club are exemplary in their refusal to teach, to underscore a moral, to drive home a point.
That accounts for the dignity which these men acquire during their long evening together. They don't know what their stories mean, but they are willing, even driven, to tell them, to entrust them to the others, and that's enough. During their meeting, they move awkardness to intimacy to something deeper, more dangerous and more primitive than sympathy. They have raided the refrigerator -- "raped" it -- and relished their crime. They have emptied several bottles of excellent Zinfandel, beautiful bottles with "long black necks and high curving shoulders. Watusi maidens." Two of them have fought, and they have all thrown handmade knives at a panel door, wrecking it. By the end of the night all seven men are howling together, literally howling, like a pack of wolves. "We sounded lost, but I thought we'd found ourselves. I mean nothing psychological. No psycho-logic of the soul, only the mind, and this was mindless. . . We howled, getting better at it as the minutes passed, entering deeply into our sound, and I felt more and more separated from myself, closer to the others, until it seemed we were one in the rising howls, rising again and again, taking us up even as we sank toward primal dissolution, assenting to it with this music of common animality."
That lament is the way this meeting has to end, the wail of loss and longing these men are doomed to raise. It is the perfect conclusion to the drift of their emotions -- perfect, but the only thing eerie about that howl is that it is so dispassionate. It is represented as a metaphor, not an event. The howl cannot be said to happen. Like the other outbursts in this novel, the men's howl is muted, a figure of speech -- or, in this case, a figure of speechlessness.
I don't think that it is too much to ask that a novel about passion be passionate itself. In The Men's Club, however, the passions are figurative, not felt. This funny, brilliant and, yes, perfect novel is oddly sedate, and that may be too great a price to pay for perfection. We get the meaning, but we miss the experience.