Songs of Experience

Deborah Eisenberg; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

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…

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