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…

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