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Life Exactly as It Is Lived

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/Getty Images
Deborah Eisenberg, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2009

There are just two complaints one could make about the recently issued volume of Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, and they seem to contradict one another. The first is that the tome, at just shy of a thousand pages, is as unwieldy as a small encyclopedia, which makes it difficult to carry around easily or read anywhere but at a desk. The second complaint—sheer churlishness on this reader’s part—is simply that there aren’t more of Eisenberg’s vital, unsparing stories to read.

Over the past twenty-four years, Eisenberg has published four collections of short fiction—five, if you count the reissue, in 1997, of her first two collections in a single volume. Hers is a relatively frugal output—about half as much, say, as that of Alice Munro during the same period. In an era of general excess, such restraint is arguably as much cause for celebration as for dismay: there is, in Eisenberg’s oeuvre, very little dross indeed. But in rereading these assembled stories, one feels the satisfying sense of a writer’s gifts expanding and enriching over time, and the concomitant wish that we, her audience, might be privileged to experience still more of them. Given this, the book’s title, The Collected Stories, is somewhat unsettling, and one trusts that it is provisional rather than definitive.

Perhaps in part because of the wide spacing of her publications, Eisenberg is celebrated highly but not as widely as she ought to be: hers are the laurels of the “writer’s writer,” the thrilled open secret of an avid following. But at her finest—and she is often at her finest—her stories rival any for their novelistic richness, for their delicate and exacting renditions of character, and for their Chekhovian patience and humor toward human frailty. Her characters are damaged and alienated, but the vivid lucidity of their experiences ensures their universality: her readers may not be runaways, recovering addicts, or desperate tourists in the lives of others, but those unable to find themselves in Eisenberg’s precisely uneasy accounts should heed Baudelaire—“hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère“—and read again.

There are no broad brushes in these narratives, and there’s an absolute intolerance of falsification. Eisenberg’s people live fully, each in his or her own small strangenesses. Most deliciously—a specialty of hers—in almost every story glimmer aperçus of witty human truth, brief Proustian pearls that return to you familiar experiences or thoughts with the sheen of wisdom upon them—as, for example, when Patty reflects, in “A Cautionary Tale,” that “time is as adhesive as love, and that the more time you spend with someone the greater the likelihood of finding yourself with a permanent sort of thing to deal with that people casually refer to as ‘friendship,’ as if that were the end of the matter.” Over the years, moreover, Eisenberg’s range as a storyteller has broadened—from a first collection made up almost entirely of female first-person narratives—to encompass diverse points of view and novel narrative strategies. The unforgettable title piece of her last collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes,” ranges, through short, named chapters, across generations and continents, all the while revealing the private overlapping histories of a widowed art dealer and his aimless young nephew in New York in the first years of the new millennium.

It is the child protagonist of “Mermaids,” Kyla, who unwittingly best articulates the experience of reading an Eisenberg short story:

At the time something was happening, of course, you didn’t know what it was like. At the time a thing was happening, that thing was not, for instance, New York. New York was what her mother was at home picturing. The place where you actually were was a street corner with wads of paper in the gutter or it was standing there, facing the worn muzzle of the horse that had pulled your carriage, or it was sitting in front of a little stain on the tablecloth. It wasn’t really like anything—it was just whatever it was, and there was never a place in your mind of the right size and shape to put it. But afterwards, the thing fit exactly into your memory as if there had always been a place—just right, just waiting for it.

This is, of course, the experience of life itself: its oddity, its unwillingness to conform to the ideas we might wish to hold about it. Surely fiction should always be, in some measure, like this: creating in our memories an experience heretofore nonexistent, at once undeniable and unlike anything else. The fact is, though, that few storytellers are able to navigate wholly successfully the tension between those wads of paper in the gutter and the meaningful shape we wish to attribute to them. Good stories are simultaneously like and unlike life: setting boundaries, illuminating patterns, in order to allow something like significance to emerge, while crucially never losing sight of life’s serendipity, its randomness, its messiness.

Eisenberg, whose fictions revel in digression and the unexpected, achieves a unique balance between these poles. While her characters are never cartoons, they hover often at the margins, isolates struggling to establish an identity (to themselves, above all) in the lonely company of strangers. In “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” the title story of her first collection, the narrator abandons her New York life to follow her sometime lover Ivan to frozen Montreal (“I had packed, and flooded my plant with water in a hypocritical gesture that would delay, but not prevent, its death”) where he abandons her to visit his ex-wife and son over Christmas. In “Broken Glass,” the narrator, whose mother has recently died, travels to Mexico for a vacation and is thrust into the world of her American expatriate landlords: “So this was what was meant by ‘traveling,’ by ‘taking a vacation’—these unnavigable currents, this sudden immersion in the lives of utter strangers, their thin, dreadful lives.” In “Mermaids,” young Kyla, taken to New York on holiday by a schoolmate’s father, along with his two horrid daughters, finds herself trapped in the incalculable misery of their family dynamic. Kyla’s discomfort is extreme—and the Laskeys are particularly appalling—but it is impossible not to relive, when reading this story, the creeping uneasiness, in childhood, of glimpsing the domestic lives of friends and acquaintances, of being party to the weirdnesses that you suddenly realized other families considered normal.

Many of Eisenberg’s stories involve young women on the move. Some have left their previous lives to resettle in New York, like ungainly Charlotte in the early story “Flotsam,” who leaves her contemptuous boyfriend Robert in Buffalo and flees to Manhattan to live with the beautiful and careless Cinder, a friend’s friend, only to find herself struggling hopelessly to belong:

I could figure out a few things about men myself, I thought. I could figure out, for instance, that men who said you looked a little like Meryl Streep meant they didn’t find you attractive but they thought someone else might. And I could figure out that men who said you looked like Big Bird or a dinosaur skeleton didn’t think anyone would find you attractive.

Or like Patty in “A Cautionary Tale,” saddled, in her new city life, with crazy Stuart, the friend she inherits from her friend Marcia along with the apartment; or like Rosie the recovering addict in “Rosie Gets a Soul,” who, like an actual refugee, has severed all ties to her origins and her needle-driven past:

Rosie thinks so often these days of people, children, who have had to leave the country where they live. What it must be, that last morning, pressing every detail into your brain to preserve it on your long journey—the journey that’s going to last for the rest of your life.

Others are simply on the move through the greater American landscape, like the narrator of “A Lesson in Traveling Light”; or, most chillingly, Kristina in “Window,” who, at the story’s opening, has arrived on the doorstep of her half-sister Alma, desperately in flight from her charismatic and abusive lover, Eli. As her history unfolds—she travels with a child, Noah, who is not her own—it becomes clear that it was her aimless wandering that first led her into Eli’s dangerous orbit: that she is a young woman without home or family to speak of, without education, ungrounded, unmoneyed, uncertain of her identity. Eli has provided her with all of these things; and has proven, perhaps inevitably, monstrous. It is a harrowing sequence, in which the simultaneous attraction and peril of Eli’s sequestered rural life are constantly in view: it is impossible to judge Kristina’s choices, even as we lament them, and we comprehend the ironies of the story’s last paragraph:

No one looks at anyone—really completely looks—the way he looked at her. She never imagined, or even dared hope, that she would meet such a man or have such a time in her life. Better keep moving. New names, new histories, a nondescript room in a busy city where she’ll be able to lose herself and Noah. Watching, hiding, running—that way at least she’ll be with Eli for good.

Travel more formally—the taking of trips—is also a frequently revisited metaphor for Eisenberg, who has set a significant number of her pieces in Latin America, where American tourists or visitors of varying degrees of naiveté encounter disquieting political realities. (Indeed, she might aptly have taken the title of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” for many of her fictions.) In “Under the 82nd Airborne,” “Holy Week,” “Across the Lake,” or “Someone to Talk To,” the menace is naked and palpable. As Rob observes in “Across the Lake”:

Even if you were to succumb to some claim of the dark and protean landscape, you could hardly ignore those soldiers. Their faces were smeared with anarchic black markings, and their eyes glittered red with exhaustion or hatred, or illness.

The juxtaposition of comfortable North American sensibilities and the underlying darkness and poverty of Eisenberg’s South America enables her to explore not only what it is like to be a stranger, but also what it means to be a complacent American exposed, like an infant, to the truths of the broader world. In “Under the 82nd Airborne,” flighty Caitlin, an aging actress, follows her estranged daughter Holly from New York to Honduras, where Holly’s fiancé is involved in clandestine military work for the US Army. Caitlin has no idea what she is getting into, and is baffled by the people around her on the plane—a missionary, an anxious businessman hoping for trade, and, finally, a group of what are apparently American soldiers, whom she sees again outside the airport upon arrival:

Their pale scalps glimmered like mushrooms through their short hair, and a damp fear came off them as they responded to the official’s question, nodding soberly, their faces a shifting balance of expressions—resignation, eagerness, rage, and obedience—that canceled each other into an unstable blankness.

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