In the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection,Your Duck Is My Duck, the unnamed narrator, a painter, is sharing a guesthouse with Amos Voinovich, an avant-garde puppeteer. The beneficiaries of a wealthy couple’s largesse, they’ve been put up at a baronial estate in an unspecified developing country to produce art and bear witness to their patrons’ disintegrating marriage. Voinovich is at work on a new puppet show, a political morality play tentatively entitled The Hand That Feeds You, in which a group of serfs and donkeys, forced to toil in mines for gold, rises up against the king and queen and their despotic regime. The bats of the realm, Voinovich tells the painter, are “on the side of the serfs, because they love freedom and flying at night and justice, which is blind, too.”
The serfs and their animal companions succeed in leading a popular uprising, but, the puppeteer explains, “the greedy king and queen are only a puppet government, keeping a client state in order” at the behest of ruthless corporate executives, who “empower the army to raze the countryside and imprison the bats and the king and the queen—everyone in fact, except the strongest serfs and donkeys, who will continue to toil in the mines, but under worse conditions than before.” When the narrator notes that this is a rather depressing outcome for his fable of the proletariat, Voinovich is ready with his reply. “Well, yeah, sure,” he says. “But I mean, these are the facts.”
Across her four previous collections, Eisenberg has never shied away from “the facts,” whether they are the consequences of American imperialism or the intimate damage wrought by families and lovers. But her stories, long defined by their extraordinary narrative complexity and depth, have recently taken on a profound sense of urgency and despair. Across six long stories, Eisenberg revisits the themes that have animated her work since her debut, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), but, as with her creation of Voinovich’s furious, hilarious show, she addresses them more directly—at times bluntly—than she ever has before, and with a sense of humor that often reads as a barely repressed scream. If there’s an occasional apologetic wink at the reader for the baldness of the political sentiments—Voinovich admits that his “former producer says the stuff about serfs is a cliché”—it’s not because Eisenberg doesn’t mean it. “Same old, same old,” the puppeteer shrugs, as if articulating the writer’s credo. “Never loses its sparkle, unfortunately.”
Though the sense of political ruin running through these stories feels especially attuned to the age of Trump (and the man himself does provide a characteristically fatuous epigraph to “Merge,” the collection’s novella-length masterpiece), most of these stories were in fact originally published in the Obama years, and this particular tenor of alarm in Eisenberg’s work can be traced back to “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the title story of her 2006 collection. It is rightly regarded as one of the great reflections on New York City in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, yet what strikes one most, reading the story now, is less the lamentation for the lost illusion of innocence—the planes “tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it”—than the vividness with which Eisenberg describes the global nightmares that had been hiding behind that curtain. She sees the “populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by,” but also the fact that the earth itself has become “an old sponge, a honeycomb of empty mine shafts and dried wells,” its waterways glinting “with weapons-grade plutonium, sneaked on barges between one wrathful nation and another.” Most grimly familiar of all, from where we currently sit, is a character’s sense that, following the catastrophe, “one’s feelings had been absorbed by an arid wasteland—policy, strategy, goals. One’s past, one’s future, one’s ordinary daily pleasures were like dusty little curios on the shelf.”
Eisenberg’s work, in other words, is driven less by a sense of shock at what the world has become than by a fury at what we—the chattering classes of wealthy nations—have allowed ourselves to ignore for so long. In “Your Duck Is My Duck,” the interpersonal and artistic drama of the patrons on their estate takes place while the countryside literally burns around them, the direct result of the Americans’ insistence on planting highly flammable eucalyptus on the farms they’ve purchased from local landowners. Anyone who can afford to, and even those who cannot, is attempting to flee the country. The narrator, of course, being a painter, purchases art supplies and gets to work painting the destruction, overflowing all the while with lyrical self-justification. “Accident had selected me to observe, in whatever way I could,” she soliloquizes, “the demonic, vengeful, helpless, ardent fires as they consumed the trees that had replaced the crops—to observe the moment when, at the heart of the conflagration, the trees that sustained it became phantoms, the fire’s memory.”
Here Eisenberg turns her own substantial gift for rhapsody against itself. Yes, the writing, and presumably, by analogy, the narrator’s painting, is beautiful. But is it appropriate to the event it describes? Is it accurate? The “demonic, vengeful, helpless, ardent fires” could have been prevented with foresight. To anthropomorphize and aestheticize them in this way, Eisenberg suggests, is to deflect responsibility from their true cause and devastating effects. The words, for all their splendor, conceal more than they reveal.
The interrogation of language—of its power, its misuse, even its origins—is conducted across many of the stories in the book, and it is the central preoccupation of “Merge.” Opening with the aforementioned epigraph from the current president (“I know words. I have the best words”), and a slightly more intellectually rigorous one from Noam Chomsky about the construction of “hierarchically structured expressions,” the story follows three characters whose lives intersect over the course of a summer. There’s Cordis, an aging woman lost in her own thoughts whose husband, the Chomsky-like Ernst Friedlander, went missing for twenty years while trying to discover the origins of language in South Asia; Keith, a recent college graduate who is on the outs with his immensely wealthy father and who walks Cordis’s dog and collects her mail for the purpose of putting “personal assistant” on his scant résumé; and Celeste, Cordis’s neighbor and Keith’s quasi-girlfriend, whose departure to Eastern Europe for a job as an international observer sets the story in motion.
Large portions of “Merge” are told from Keith’s point of view, giving Eisenberg opportunity to roam through his intelligent but stunted mind, observing in minute detail the tentative development of his political consciousness. Keith has been kicked out of his father’s apartment after forging a $10,000 check from his father’s bank account. In a misguided attempt to go “off the grid,” he has also dispossessed himself of his phone and laptop. Eisenberg’s remarkable gift for free indirect discourse is often activated by youth, by the deep reserve of empathy she is able to summon for characters who are trying to find their way in the world. (From my favorite single volume of her work, Under the 82nd Airborne, there are, to cite just two examples, Rosie, the recovering heroin junkie of “Rosie Gets a Soul,” and Patty, the hapless rookie waitress of “A Cautionary Tale,” who both come uncannily to life in their floundering.)
One of Eisenberg’s great innovations is in the real-time depiction of thought on the page, the banal revelations and asides that sustain us through otherwise intolerable days. The mutable brain of the twenty-something is the ideal playground for these mental peregrinations. Here, for example, is Keith attempting to stop somewhere to open a letter while walking Cordis’s dog:
Very awkward—does this genteel block with its row of lovingly tended brownstones not place at intervals a bench to welcome the weary flaneur?
A bench! Ha! When has Keith last seen a bench in this town? Do people younger than he is even know what a bench is?
The senseless thought pellets ricochet off his brain as he struggles to open the envelope without either ripping its contents or strangling the dog: a bench! Some homeless person might misunderstand—some homeless person might feel entitled to sit down.
One marvels at the tonal tightrope Eisenberg walks, the adoption of the mock highfalutin internal monologue allowing for multiple levels of riffing. Keith affects the sneering, lordly tone of the milieu in which he was raised—the adjustment of emphasis from “homeless person” to “homeless person” is deadly accurate—in satirical solidarity with the city’s indigent. But, on a more fundamental level, he’s complaining about the fact that he, at that very moment, semi-indigent entirely by choice, can’t find a place to sit.
Over the course of the story, Eisenberg depicts Keith’s initiation into the indignities faced by those without recourse to recommendation letters from their fathers. After spending a day working a pointless, menial job, he is exhausted in a way that is entirely unfamiliar to him. “This kind of tired comes with nothing good at all, no feeling of accomplishment, just the dread of how tired he’ll be again tomorrow,” we’re told. “The dread of the endless exhausting, boring chores he has to perform to keep himself alive.” But the class-consciousness is, unsurprisingly, short-lived. After receiving an e-mail from his father’s most recent, much younger wife, he returns, chastened, to the family penthouse, “ready to go to law school, or to business school if need be, right away. Whatever his father thinks best.”
Celeste, meanwhile, is traumatized by what she sees abroad: refugee and environmental crises of staggering proportions. “She’d thought she was prepared,” Eisenberg writes,
but it was only during one instant and then another that she could take in what was in front of her, things that ought to be impossible—the miles of cardboard and plastic, rotting garbage, sewage, the clashes at the margins and in the adjacent towns, clashes in the bus and train stations…every port sealed.
The previously unthinkable catastrophe that she observes firsthand prompts an existential reckoning: “If what she observed was real, how could she be real?”
This is the question that seems to lead her, after leaving Eastern Europe, to take up Ernst Friedlander’s doomed quest for the origins of language in a remote, unnamed corner of the world. We follow her fevered thoughts as she lies ill and alone in her bed, writing and drawing increasingly cryptic, disturbing postcards to Keith that seem to chart a path backwards through the development of speech. When we last see Celeste, she’s deep in the midst of a fever dream, attending a council of modern man’s ancestors and evolutionary relatives. There are Neanderthals, chimps, and bonobos, among many other species; this, Celeste understands, is where language begins: “The participants frown with concentration—empty conveyances form in their heads and line up, preparing to receive their cargo of mental plasma. Word, Celeste thinks, encouraging—word.”
The final postcard she sends, “written in some nasty-looking reddish brown ink…in letters that rippled like flame,” reads in its entirety—calling back to the destructive stupidity of the title story—“FIRE.” In the story’s last moments, Cordis, as if receiving emanations from her young neighbor across the world, observes a tree in the first throes of autumn. “Leaf, she thinks, arresting it in midair, where she contemplates it. Leaf, she thinks, and lets it fall.” This reversion to simplicity, the reduction of language to its fundamental function of naming the natural world, is terrifying in Celeste’s story, but a balm in Cordis’s.
In a Paris Review interview in 2013, Eisenberg used the metaphor of polyphony in music to describe her aspirations for writing fiction:
Let’s say there are two musical lines, a treble and a bass line, that you’re hearing simultaneously. You’re experiencing each one, but you’re also experiencing what’s happening between them. Each line has complete integrity, but the space between them, the harmonic relationship, is just as critical an element, and it’s that tension, the way it all works together—that is what is uncannily exciting.
“Merge” feels like her most explicit attempt yet to achieve that tension in writing. It’s thrilling to watch Eisenberg weave these threads together, simultaneously risking, in the case of Keith’s plot, an easy moralism (the very rich are different from you and me!), and, in Celeste’s, incomprehensibility. But the layers inform and complicate each other. Celeste, the purist and martyr (but to what end?), acknowledges that she was enchanted by Keith’s “low-grade pixie dust of undeserved advantages,” and by her own self-serving conviction that there was more to him than his privilege. Keith, though undeniably a spoiled cad, is last seen traveling across town to check on Cordis, motivated by a newly discovered (if obnoxious and superficial) sense of noblesse oblige.
There is, too, a sense of polyphony across the entirety of the collection. Though Eisenberg has said that she doesn’t write individual stories with the idea of their relationship to the others in mind, each of her collections has a cohesiveness that derives in part from her preoccupations, which echo across the pieces. For example, “The Third Tower,” the story immediately following “Merge,” posits a dystopian world of forced language de-acquisition, in which a young woman named Therese is put through a series of exercises to rid her of her powers of associative thought.
The story is an outlier in Eisenberg’s body of work—the terror of the world as it is has tended to give her more than enough material to work with—but it becomes less anomalous when considered alongside the others that surround it. While “Merge” suggests that the acquisition of language is the start of all the trouble for humans (Friedlander opines that “language developed as a way for us to deceive ourselves into believing that we understand things, so then we can just go ahead and do stuff that’s more ruthless than what any other animal does”), “The Third Tower” imagines the mental barrenness of a world in which words are reduced to a one-to-one relationship with what they represent. Therese ends the story successfully complying with an Orwellian game of free association with her doctor; the only correct response to “tree” is “tree.”
A refusal to draw a hard line between one’s past and one’s future—a general bafflement at the passage of time—has been a presence in Eisenberg’s work since “Flotsam,” her first published story. But in this collection, these ideas are explored with greater acuteness and insistence than ever before. In the stories “Taj Mahal” and “Cross Off and Move On,” time is elastic, uncertain, prone to leaps of association forward and backward.
In “Taj Mahal,” a group of aging actors, all of whom were once part of the repertory company of the (fictional) director Anton Pavlak, gather to complain about a gossipy memoir written by the filmmaker’s grandson. Emma, the daughter of one of Anton’s leading actresses, emerges as the central figure in the story, listening to the competing narratives of her mother’s friends and sifting through her own memories. As she sits with them, she observes that “their old age seems provisional, a temporary blurring or slackening of outlines. Here in the dim restaurant they appear to be indistinct embryonic forms, waiting with patience and humility to be issued new roles, new shapes.” Later, as they leave the restaurant, Emma finds herself preemptively nostalgic for the experience that is not yet ended: “Do you remember that day, she thinks, when we got together and we talked about that stupid book? We were all together, and it was a perfect day.”
But the story is playful in its demonstration of the untrustworthiness of nostalgia. It opens with nearly four pages of Pavlak’s grandson’s sepia-toned recollections (“I was a difficult little boy, and when my mother’s chronic illnesses made it impossible for her to care for me…”); it unspools so evenly and at such length that even a reader attuned to Eisenberg’s scalpel-sharp prose might be forgiven for mistaking this expertly banal sample of the offending memoir for the narrative voice of the story itself. Until, that is, the true, significantly more acerbic register asserts itself with a flourish: “What to do with all this horseshit? Nothing, really, nothing.”
Meanwhile, “Cross Off and Move On” is a elegant mash-up of several Eisenbergian mainstays: the slow-dawning realization of one’s complex family history (as in the standout story of her third collection, “All Around Atlantis”); the difficulty of grappling with a flighty, self-regarding mother (“Under the 82nd Airborne,” “Presents”); and the warped world of childhood, from which the actions of adults take on a mysterious spectral quality. The story is framed as a recollection of the narrator’s three paternal aunts, spurred by the obituary of her cousin Morrie, a childhood crush who became a violin virtuoso. When the narrator grew up, the aunts were a constant source of tension between her and her mother, their old-world manners and antiques seeming to serve as a standing rebuke to her mother’s unhappy working-class life. Slowly, the narrator comes to understand her Jewish ancestry: that her aunts fled horrors that later wiped out all that was left of her father’s family.
The narrator’s childhood perception of her aunts’ house echoes Emma’s flickering perceptions of her mother’s friends in “Taj Mahal.” “What is certain,” she recounts,
is that my aunts’ house, which is draped in the shadows of the massive trees that surround it, has a stagey, provisional feel, as if it were an illusion produced by powerful, distant brainwaves, and I can’t shake off the thought that the house dematerializes at night—its own form of sleep when its inhabitants are sleeping. I understand that the house is made of brick rather than brainwaves—it just has to be—but still, I brood about it: Hypothetically, what would the point of the illusion be?
And so a passage that begins by asserting “what is certain” is in fact a dizzying assertion of all that is not certain, down to the physical existence of the house itself. There is something of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander in her further explorations of the house, where “ghosts flimmer in their chairs, the hieroglyphics rise in the rugs, the stopped gilt clocks and cracked ornaments begin to pulse with the living current of their memories.” The aunts, despite her mother’s disparagement of them as “the coven,” show her far more genuine kindness than her mother does. In an otherwise painful story, bookended by the painful dissolution of a relationship, she remembers these women as her “old allies,” their house and possessions “bringing dreams of the planet my grandparents came from, with its bloodstained ghetto walls, the pistol butts beating at the doors, its rhapsodic festivals of murder.” She imagines them, after their deaths, finally released from those nightmares of history, “blending into darkness.”
“Is she waiting for a great catastrophe, or only the minor personal one?” Cordis asks herself. The answer in Eisenberg’s work is, of course, both. She has few peers among contemporary story writers, and like those to whom she might be usefully compared (Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, the late Mavis Gallant), her work has continued to expand and mutate over the course of her career, the conventions of the traditional short story growing more and more distant in the rearview mirror. Her techniques of destabilization—stories that begin in one place then gallop off somewhere else entirely; characters for whom time is a disarmingly fluid concept; epiphanies that don’t stick—have only grown more sophisticated over time, resulting in stories that feel both architectural and organic, like intricate, half-melted sandcastles.
Her stories, especially the recent ones, demand careful attention and rereading in order to trace the delicate lines of connection across and between sections and paragraphs. One gets the sense, when deep inside an Eisenberg story, that she is pushing past her own understanding of what she knows, trying to find and identify the most difficult questions possible. She is alert to the dire signals that are emanating from the country and planet, but she hasn’t given up on trying to interpret them. “So many sirens!” Keith notices during his brief awakening to the world’s cruelties. “Have there been so many sirens all along?”