Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 144 pages; 2015.
If literature “ought to be depressing” — as this NYRB Tweet shared by my friend Armen suggests — then Leonard Michael’s 1992 novella, Sylvia, has truly fulfilled its function.
A portrait of a dysfunctional marriage in 1960s Manhattan, this story is about as depressing as they get.
Said to be semi-autobiographical and based on the author’s own bad marriage, it’s a beautifully crafted novel, written in short, to-the-point sentences, but it’s also a terribly sad one.
A fateful relationship
When the book opens we meet the young 20-something nameless narrator. He’s just returned to New York after two years of graduate school in Berkeley “without a PhD or any idea of what I’d do, only a desire to write stories”. He’s now living at home with his Jewish parents in Lower East Side Manhattan, where his mother pampers him and his father thinks he’s a disappointment.
One day he visits his friend Naomi, who lives in Greenwich Village. She’s sharing a rather squalid apartment with a dark-haired Asian woman called Sylvia and it is from this one meeting that a fateful relationship is set in motion.
After being abandoned by Naomi and her boyfriend on a walk through Washington Square Park, the narrator and Sylvia “continued together, as if dazed, drifting through dreamy heat”. They return to the apartment “like a couple doomed to sacrificial assignation” and “made love until afternoon became twilight and twilight became black night”. And that’s when Sylvia nonchalantly mentions she already has a boyfriend.
Infidelity and lustful sex aren’t Sylvia’s only tropes. Our narrator soon learns that Sylvia, who has no immediate family and is essentially all alone in the world, is also wildly unpredictable, argumentative, prone to violent outbursts, jealous rages and self-harming. And yet, for all the difficulties and drama she creates, he cannot seem to say no to her.
He encourages her to go to university, while he struggles to find any paid work. Against his own wisdom, the pair get married. They spend their spare time hanging out in bars, conducting screaming matches or having angry, compulsive sex. Neither of them appears to be happy. It all seems doomed to failure.
A toxic marriage
Written as a retrospective narrative, the book is interspersed with diary extracts of the narrator’s innermost thoughts at the time which includes quotes from Sylvia’s diatribes to show how cruel and mad she could be. Sadly, these extracts are not laid out any differently to the rest of the text so it’s easy to mistake them as part of the main narrative until you see the tiny date stamp at the end. Using a different font would have easily solved this problem.
That aside, the most interesting thing about Sylvia is its focus on a toxic marriage from the husband’s point of view (instead of the wife’s).
In Sylvia, the narrator is a passive male character, who is constantly manipulated by his “crazy” wife. She uses emotional blackmail to harangue him and makes idle threats to end her life to gain his full attention. It’s heart-rending to read knowing the narrator is caught between the social mores of the time — his parents believe he should stand by his wife no matter what — and his inability to get Sylvia to seek the medical help she so clearly needs.
This is a fast-paced stylish read. Its undertone of latent violence makes it feel like a noirish thriller, but there’s also a raw melancholic power that gives it a mad intensity, almost as if you, the reader, is living through the self-destructive love of this doomed couple. It’s not an easy read, nor a comfortable one, but its shock ending with its nod to redemption makes it worth the effort.