The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
Picador: 980 pp., $22 paper
In Deborah Eisenberg's story "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor," Francie, a scholarship student at a tony boarding school, receives news that her mother has died. As Francie rides a bus back home, she tries to comprehend her new life. "All those hours during which her life (along with her mother) had gone from being one thing to being another," Eisenberg writes, "it had held its shape, like a car window Francie once saw hit by a rock. The rock hit, a web to tiny, glittering lines fanned out, and only a minute or so later had the window tinkled to the street in splinters."
This description does for Francie what Eisenberg does for all the characters in her extraordinary stories: It frames an indelible moment that simultaneously reveals a character and shows us how a thought can expose the ephemeral and inscrutable nature of love. That's a tall order, but there is not a scene in "The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg" that does not deliver on this intention. These stories are marvels, in which a character's predicament is informed not only by present circumstance but also by personal and political history as well as Eisenberg's abiding engagement with the sometimes-hilarious, often-heartbreaking existential dilemma.
"The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg" gathers the author's four previous collections of short fiction and, in so doing, makes a case for her as one of the contemporary masters of the form. Her work is a marvel of compression, in which characters speak with the kind of crackling dialogue that tunes our ear to the way language exposes and obscures our hearts.
In "Transactions in a Foreign Currency," a young woman follows an erratically attentive boyfriend to Montreal. When she tries to get him to voice his level of commitment, he pushes back by saying, "People's situations are just a fraction of their existence. … Look, does the universe care whether it's you or Louis Pasteur that's Louis Pasteur?" The dialogue accomplishes so many things at once: exposing the whiny self-deception of the man, telling us exactly how far he is willing to go with the woman and shining a light on our deeply held notions of individualism. Such tour de force moments appear again and again throughout Eisenberg's writing, as she takes small, seemingly insignificant interactions, infuses them with humor to misdirect us, then rounds them out with a deft move that leaves us breathless.
Many of Eisenberg's stories take place in Central America, and she uses the naïve experience of her characters to underscore their sense of emotional displacement. In "Across the Lake," a young man arrives at a small village and falls in with a pair of cynical and cunning American travelers who seem at ease with the ever-present threat of violence. Although he knows he's being drawn past his comfort zone, when given the chance to go to the safer side of the lake, the young man makes the choice to stay near the danger as if to journey to some darker part of himself.
Eisenberg mines her foreign locations with a richly ironic eye that exposes not only her characters' dislocation but also the folly of American imperialism. Yet even her domestic stories play richly with these themes of identity. In the gorgeous "Some Other, Better Otto," a successful man with a long-term lover reflects on his complicated feelings for his schizophrenic sister. He recalls seeing her with a doctor at the psychiatric hospital where she has been committed: "The way they had smiled at one another, she and the doctor! What can you do, their smiles had said. The handsome doctor in his handsome-doctor suit and Sharon in her disheveled-lunatic suit; what a charade." Otto is at a crucial point where he is wrestling with an urge to pull away from his partner, and this recollection of his sister underscores his ambivalent feelings about the roles he has chosen to inhabit in his life.
Eisenberg's dexterity with language and the exactness of her phrasing often take the form of polished comedy. In the marvelously acerbic "Rafe's Coat," a divorced woman of high society becomes fixated on her best friend's new lover, a soap opera star. With a lacerating eye, Eisenberg leads us through a world of cocktail party gossip, calibrating her humor with incredible precision so that we are brought up short by the devastation at the center of the hilarity. At a dinner with Rafe, the woman muses about the plush surroundings, noting that "I was pierced by a feeling so keen and unalloyed it might have been called — I don't know what it might have been called. It felt like — well, grief … actually."
Such writing is so accurate that it's easy to forget that Eisenberg is deeply interested in language for its own sake. In "All Around Atlantis," a woman who grew up in a house full of refugees — her mother escaped the Holocaust, her mother's young lover is a refugee from communist Europe — remembers the English spoken in her home: "A language so new, so clean, so devoid of association and overtone as to be mercifully almost unlike, I'd suppose, human speech. But … I could detect — trembling there in the depths of those accents — clues and evidence; it was as if iron vaults sunk to the bottom of the sea, couldn't prevent the radioactive waste buried in them from transmitting its toxic shining signals." This evocation of the emptiness and overflowing fullness of language suggests how words can save and fail us at once.
To read collected works is to experience the development of a voice, and Eisenberg's later work shows a propensity to experiment with form. Her first stories, often about younger characters, are shaped more predictably, but as early as her second book, "Under the 82nd Airborne," she becomes interested in how far she can push structure to reflect more accurately the amorphous shape of life. In the title story of that collection, a failed actress finds herself, at middle age, in a situation where "her life roared in her ear like an empty shell." The woman decides to follow her daughter, whom she once abandoned, to Honduras. Knowing nothing about her daughter's life or the combustive politics of the country, she seeks protection with a man whose danger to her becomes apparent at the very moment the story ends. The decision to close the story here is a bold one. It is as if Eisenberg has looked at traditional narrative and decided that epiphany, conflict and resolution are false constructs we impose on a retrospective understanding of ourselves. They are products of our desire to shape what is inherently unshapely and thus, Eisenberg suggests, they are somehow corrupt.
To read Eisenberg is to allow her to lead us through a series of rooms, knowing that just when we think we understand the layout, we will be whisked through another door. Her characters fumble through their lives, and yet she writes about them with such sophistication and awareness that it cannot help but make us alert to the fact that we share their humbling desires.
Silver is the author, most recently, of the story collection "Alone With You."