Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 33
Intellectual and moral seriousness blends with great wit in the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, as well as a gift for metaphorChris Power
For most people there is a gap between the person we are and the person we want to be, or think we are and turn out, in fact, to be. This is the space many of Deborah Eisenberg's short stories inhabit, and attempts to navigate it are what provide their drama. But these voyages of discovery often fail to make landfall, or, Columbus-like, arrive in unexpected places. Dissatisfied Otto, contemplating the puzzle of identity in Some Other, Better Otto, despairs: "No wonder one tended to feel so fragile. It was infuriating enough just trying to have contact with a few other people, let alone with all of one's selves!"
It says something that, despite how widely they range otherwise, each of Eisenberg's four collections to date, published over the last 25 years at a rate she calls "glacially slow", begins with a young person coming to New York on the verge of becoming someone else. By the time of Twilight of the Superheroes, the ambitious title story of Eisenberg's most recent collection (published in 2006), that redefinition of self has come to include not only the architect Nathaniel, but the city of New York and, by extension, an entire section of American society. It's told in short, separately titled sections that skip in constantly unpredictable directions; a playful, essayistic piece that only gradually reveals the seriousness of its subject. Hovering between Nathaniel and his art dealer uncle Lucien, the story is one of the best liberal critiques of post 9/11 America to come from a fiction writer's pen. Its delineation of a confidence that turned out to be illusory is acute:
"Because the future actually ahead of them, it's now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain."
In the story's present, time has passed and normalcy has returned to the city, but "you can't help sort of knowing that what you're seeing is only the curtain". This apprehension in turn feeds a dangerous nostalgia for a time that seems like a paradise, but was in fact the by-product of a blithe ignorance. While this story marks a new height of complexity in Eisenberg's work, its roots run through her earlier collections. Each of those feature stories set in Central America, which have their genesis in a trip Eisenberg made to Nicaragua in the early 1980s, "to see", she once told an interviewer, "where our tax dollars were going". Many of her stories have elliptical aspects, and works such as Under the 82nd Airborne and Holy Week are only more menacing for the oblique way she approaches the US-funded secret wars that convulsed the region's "blood-drenched countryside". Sharing traits with Graham Greene, Don DeLillo and Malcolm Lowry, this sequence of stories within the larger corpus asks, as Lucien does in 'Twilight of the Superheroes', "How far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?"
While Eisenberg's subject matter is never trivial, one of its most immediately appealing traits is the way its intellectual and moral seriousness is blended with great wit, as well as a manifest talent for metaphor and simile. In her stories we stumble upon the "greedy bliss" of an open-mouthed skull and the "lush sheaves" of cello arpeggios; an accent so slight as to be "a crisping around the edges of words"; a glass phone booth in a deserted night-time car park that looks like "a tiny, primitive spaceship"; hair that's "black like a telephone", and an outfit like "a scout uniform from a pornographic movie". These skilful dabs, applied judiciously, are a key component of what Lorna Sage called Eisenberg's "discreet patina of style which is nearly matte, has no shiny gloss, but is nonetheless worked to a certain finish".
Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2009, Eisenberg proposed that "the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile, and more evanescent thing than the plot of a novel". There's plenty of strangeness in her work, but aside from a couple of instances in the earlier stories it never feels gratuitous. Whether she writes about how a death reveals the truth about a girl's family (The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor), an innocent abroad discovering his capacity for brutishness (Across the Lake), or the serial metamorphoses of post 9/11 New York, the volatility that's found in Eisenberg's stories arises from situations that exist in three dimensions; that can be turned and considered from a variety of angles. In this they accord with the thoughts of the ex-junkie Rosie in Rosie Gets a Soul, when she wonders at where she's ended up:
"But maybe that's what life is always like. All the time, for everyone. Maybe any moment you could say, this is normal; it's just what's happening. And you could equally well say, this is the strangest thing that ever could be. Probably so – it'll just depend on where you start the story."
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger