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Life Exactly as It Is Lived

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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.

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.

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