It turns out that Caitlin’s tourist trip—in which she hopes, with what proves an obvious futility, to form a bond with Holly—coincides with a staged American military action: the parachuting into the city of the 82nd Airborne. What Caitlin surely envisaged as a cozy familial loop turns instead into a straight line, veering from the known into the unknown, where she can no longer trust anyone or anything and cannot distinguish friend from foe. By the story’s end, she is trapped in the embrace of a terrifying Vietnam vet named Lewis, who is involved in local covert operations and responsible, she learns, for brutal murders of the locals. His last words, and the story’s—“I thought I told you to come here”—might so easily, in another story, have been a longed-for invitation to love; but are, in this case, the stuff of nightmare.
The stakes for Aaron Shapiro in “Someone to Talk To,” while different, are equally high: a pianist who was, in youth, a prodigy, whose career has dwindled painfully, and who was recently abandoned by his wife, he has accepted an invitation to perform at a Pan-American music festival in an unnamed Latin American country. His host, Richard Penwad, explains: “People don’t tend to be aware how vigorous our sponsorship of the arts is…. We’re hoping the festival will help…to rectify the, ah, perception that we’re identified with the military here.” Shapiro, of course, had failed to grasp this. When interviewed by a British radio journalist named Beale—an encounter that, like the performance itself, he hopes will help relaunch his professional life—he finds that his only relevance in this place is precisely as a pawn of the local despotic regime. Further, he comes to realize that Beale teeters on the verge of madness, and is obsessed with radio’s potential to disseminate his own semifictional stories. In the wake of his performance, Shapiro recalls his triumph when first he played the same concerto:
Oh, that night seventeen years earlier! When it was reasonable for Shapiro to assume that he himself was going to be one of the favored. That he, too, would be respected, dignified, happy…The audience that night! How gratifying Shapiro had found their ardor then, how loathsome now, in memory. How thrilled they had been, seeing their own bright reflection in all the weightless glitter.
The horror of the present is not simply itself, but also its destruction of his fantasy of the past: Penwad and Beale between them drive home that Shapiro’s success was only ever an artifice, that all his audience ever encountered was itself. In their unsettled Latin American journeys, Eisenberg’s characters confront not only the violence in which their homeland, and hence they themselves, are actively complicit, but also the illusory nature of their own worlds, at home and in their minds. The abiding lesson is that just below the surface, nowhere is safe and nothing is certain.
As Eisenberg makes clear elsewhere, literal travel is not necessary for such revelations: all that is required is self-knowledge. One of her longest stories, and most devastating, is “All Around Atlantis,” the title of her penultimate collection. Written as an address to a man named Peter, who had known her in childhood, it is Anna’s recollection, late in life, of growing up in New York with her mother Lili and a man she thought of as her mother’s uncle, Sándor. Hungarian Jewish émigrés, they kept from Anna the recent and agonizing history that had led them to New York; and it is only gradually, with the help of a music school friend named Paige, that she comes to realize everything she does not know, to tease out the bitter details of her legacy. The culmination of Anna’s quest for knowledge comes with the mad outburst of a guest named Voitek, suddenly screaming in German or Polish, over tea. As Anna says in retrospect, “Where were we all? And how many people were in that room? Millions, yes? Literally millions of people had been there all that time, just waiting to be recognized.”
In “All Around Atlantis,” Anna’s recollections make clear that she, too, growing up as an American child in New York, lives with as strange and alienated an identity, and with as much subterranean menace, as do Eisenberg’s tourists in Latin America. The guerrilla soldiers with terrifying face paint that Rob sees in “Across the Lake” are here replaced by invisible histories, by what is always present and never to be openly acknowledged, at first understood only as facts of life—that Lili, Anna’s mother, would vanish periodically “into the darkness behind her door”; or that Lili and her friends would all speak in English, rather than their native tongue, because it was “a language so new, so clean, so devoid of association and overtone as to be mercifully almost unlike, I’d suppose, human speech.”
These are the traces of what lies beneath; it is Anna’s ambivalent mission to follow them to their source, to dredge the darkness for their import. This is Eisenberg’s mission, too. None of her collections is more consistently potent than her most recent, Twilight of the Superheroes. Its title story, as mentioned earlier, contrives to bring together generations across continents in the guise of a piece about an uncle and nephew in New York in the years after September 11. Here, too, the Holocaust casts its shadow: Lucien, the uncle, recalls his nephew Nathaniel’s parents—Rose, his own wife Charlie’s sister, and her husband Isaac:
Neither Rose and Charlie’s parents nor Isaac’s ever recovered from their journey to the New World, to say nothing of what had preceded it….
Isaac did fairly well manufacturing vacuum cleaners. He and Rose were solid members of their temple and the community, but according to Charlie, no matter how uneventful their lives in the United States continued to be, filling out an unfamiliar form would cause Isaac’s hands to sweat and send jets of acid through his innards….
Their three elder sons, Nathaniel’s brothers, fulfilled Rose and Isaac’s deepest hopes by turning out to be blindingly inconspicuous. The boys were so reliable and had so few characteristics it was hard to imagine what anyone could think up to kill them for. They were Jewish, of course, but even Rose and Isaac understood that this particular criterion was inoperative in the United States—at least for the time being.
Nathaniel’s world is very different from that of Rose and Isaac: he has followed his university friends to New York, at their urging. One, Amity, tells him:
It’s time for you to try, Nathaniel…. It’s time to commit. This oddball, slacker stance is getting kind of old, don’t you think, kind of stale. You cannot let your life be ruled by fear any longer…. I mean, fear of failure, obviously. Fear of mediocrity.
He is, in his slacker mode, the creator of a cartoon called “Passivityman,” in which he has granted his friends superpowers, all of which have come, in their actual lives, to naught. As Lucien reflects:
Or maybe his nephew’s is the last generation that will remember what it had once felt like to blithely assume there would be a future—at least a future like the one that had been implied by the past they’d all been familiar with.
But 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 “Some Other, Better Otto,” the past and future are again entangled. Middle-aged, ill-tempered Otto suffers torments over his own irascibility, vis-à-vis his boyfriend, William, his siblings, even the neighbors of whom he is fond. The only person exempt from his criticism is his sister Sharon, a schizophrenic genius whose life, on account of her illness, has been simplified to its essences. When another sister, Corinne, points out that their brother’s young daughter Portia shows similar signs of mental instability, Otto reflects that “when one con- templated Portia, when one contemplated Sharon, when one contemplated one’s own apparently pointless, utterly trivial being, the questions hung all around one, as urgent as knives at the throat.”
The answers to the questions are no more reassuring than the questions themselves:
Everyone is so alone. For this, all the precious Sharons had to flounder through their loops and tucks of eternity; for this, the shutters were drawn on their aerial and light-filled minds. Each and every Sharon, thrashing through the razor-edged days only in order to be absorbed by this spongy platitude: everyone is so alone! Great God, how could it be endured?
For Otto, it can be endured, ultimately, because of William: because Otto himself is not as alone as Sharon. The fractured and fragile web of human relations may be inadequate and frustrating, but it remains a salvation from permanent isolation. Otto’s depressive ruminations are not the less true for this fact; but Eisenberg makes clear, in her story’s barely tender ending, that they are not the only truth.
This possibility of release is not always granted. In another extraordinary story from Twilight of the Superheroes, “Like It or Not,” Kate, another lonely woman traveler—this time in Italy—is witness to the predatory oddities of her host, Harry, a friend’s friend, an urbane antiques dealer who is giving her “a little tour of the coast”: “There was no stone, arch, column, pediment, square inch of painting in the vicinity that Harry couldn’t expound upon.” In their hotel, Harry encounters a couple that he knows, the Reitzes, with their children; and Kate is awkwardly privy to the confidences of the superprivileged. (“‘I want to take the train,’” the little boy said mournfully. ‘I wanted to take the train…. But we can’t because of the Porsche.’”)
Eisenberg deftly conveys Kate’s discomfort at being too old, at almost fifty, to be sexually attractive to Harry, who is her own age; at being roped into conversation with the condescending Mrs. Reitz, a glitzy Texan, and her bluff European husband. And then, surprisingly, she shifts point of view, and gives us Harry’s perspective—one in which neither Kate nor Mrs. Reitz feature at all, either as subjects or as objects of desire, but rather the Reitzes’ nameless adolescent daughter:
How many wonders there used to be for him! The miraculous human landscapes!… Whatever role he’d been assigned in the girl’s drama—her drama of triumph, her drama of degradation—it was certain to be a despicable or ridiculous one.
The beautiful force of this story emanates from the universality of its characters’ suffering: divorced and lonely Kate endures the losses of middle age, and at first, in her middle-class dowdy clothes, might appear the most pitiable of the party. But Harry’s isolation is more complete, and thus his grief at what is lost is the greater—Kate, after all, has her children, has connections rather than simply memories. Even ghastly Mrs. Reitz, the morning after, evokes compassion: “In the bright light [her] skin looked dry and fragile, as she lingered near Harry”—she is no different from Kate, in having lost her ability to attract; different only in her desperate “lingering.” And then there is the nameless Reitz daughter, whose suffering is the dumb, blind suffering of youth, which prompts Kate to recall her own daughter’s distress, and her maternal reaction to it: “‘Be patient,’ she used to say. ‘Be patient. It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow, next week you won’t even remember…’”
Eisenberg has an extraordinary capacity to see, to know, and to tell—to tell so much often in a single word, as with Mrs. Reitz’s “lingering.” In her wise and open digressiveness, not all of what she tells adds up, and frequently it remains unseen by anyone but the author and her readers—in “Like It or Not,” as in so many of her stories, each character’s experience remains undisclosed to the others, and Otto’s observation that “everyone is so alone” echoes everywhere in its banality and its truth—but this is Eisenberg’s gift: to bring life, exactly as it is lived, into art.