Reading Deborah Eisenberg is like landing, slightly disoriented, at a series of unfamiliar destinations. It’s a challenge to find your bearings, but her stories’ rewards accumulate faster than frequent-flier miles. In “Your Duck Is My Duck,” her first collection since “Twilight of the Superheroes” 12 years ago, Eisenberg drops us into an impressive variety of locales: a dystopia where language is wielded as a conformity tool; among a group of aging actors gathered to vent about a “cheaply sentimental, stealthily vicious, meretriciously moralizing” memoir written about their circle; and into the life of a woman who ruefully realizes that she’s inherited some of her toxic mother’s nastiness.
Although somewhat less fractured and abstract than her earlier work, the six acerbically witty tales in Eisenberg’s new book are still hard to summarize, because they’re neither simple nor linear. Most branch off in surprising directions, sprouting sub-plots, flashbacks and fast-forwards, spreading out with the fecundity of wild berry bushes. They encompass many of her recurrent preoccupations, including life’s uncontrollable randomness, the fundamental unknowability of others, the near-ubiquitousness of familial and romantic estrangement, and the recognition that the past is never really “over and done with.”
Eisenberg’s characters repeatedly observe that we usually love people not as they are but as we want them to be. “Pretty much everyone wants everyone else to be at least sort of someone else, don’t they?” a woman muses about the lost sheep of a boyfriend she’s recently left in “Merge.” When the woman who couldn’t run far enough from her noxious mother in “Cross Off and Move On” learns of a cousin’s death, she calls her husband, from whom she’s been separated for a year. “Listen, do you want me to come by?” he says. Eisenberg writes, “‘No,’ I said, though I did want him to come by. Or I fiercely wanted him to come by, but only if he was going to be a slightly different person, a person with whom I would be a different person — a pleasant, benign, even-tempered person.”
These are people who rarely feel in control of their destinies. Zoe, a once-celebrated actress at the heart of “Taj Mahal,” a deliciously rich, conversational story about (among other things) aging and whether the past is immutable or forever open to different interpretations, speaks for many of Eisenberg’s characters when she tells her politically correct daughter, “We’re each allotted the life of one particular person. We don’t choose it. I’ve had very good luck, I know that. And frankly, darling, so have you. As it happens, you don’t work in a meatpacking plant, either.”
All these stories bear the stamp of Eisenberg’s dramatist’s ear and mordant wit — as does the book’s title, based on a riddle about a duck trapped in a bottle. Eisenberg inverts the punchline — “It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem” — because for her, others’ problems are invariably shared: Your duck is my duck.
Eisenberg is particularly sharp on the push and pull of mother-daughter exchanges and the banter between old friends. “Ah, well — no one in that family need worry about being loved for beauty alone,” the nasty mother comments on her in-laws’ unattractive noses — a feature, she points out repeatedly, that her daughter has inherited. In response to the gossipy memoir about them, the actors in “Taj Mahal” ask, “Were we a group? Were we friends? Did we even like each other?” — and chortle at the memory of their tangled love affairs.
One of the most moving stories, “Recalculating,” involves a turning point in a young man’s life. Adam, the son of Iowa farmers who’s left to study climatology, sneaks off to a memorial service in London for his wayward oldest uncle, who moved to Europe long before Adam was born and broke off all contact with the family. Eisenberg captures Adam’s awakening as he gradually realizes the scope of his Uncle Phillip’s achievements as a renowned architect and the prominence of his sophisticated friends. We can practically hear his brain making one mental adjustment after another in order to understand the complicated relationship between Phillip, his longtime partner, Simon, and Vivian, Phillip’s former girlfriend, who had stayed close with him and finds a strangely comforting “proxy immortal” in his lookalike nephew. “Almost every bit of the world was unknown to him,” Eisenberg writes about Adam from a tight third-person point of view. This serendipitous experience turns out to be life-changing for him.
“Merge” is one of two stories that concern the limitations of language. Like her post-9/11 story, “Twilight of the Superheroes,” and the dystopic “The Third Tower” in this collection, it has a political undercurrent — in this case, hinted at by its epigraph, a brag by Donald Trump about having “the best words.” It starts off as a story about a young, privileged college graduate named Keith who is at a loss about how to live and support himself after his rich father cuts him off when he postpones law school. But then Keith’s new quasi-girlfriend, Celeste, a crisis management worker, goes abroad in search of a beloved neighbor from her childhood, a long-lost “maverick archeologist, ” and the story morphs into a cautionary tale about quixotic adventures far more dangerous than Keith’s impractical stabs at independence — complete with shades of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” The archaeologist disappeared 20 years earlier on an excavation in Southeast Asia, where he sought proof for his theory that language originated in humans’ ability, unique among mammals, to merge multiple expressible ideas to capture complexities.
Eisenberg, of course, does just that — merges multiple ideas to capture complexities — in every story in this remarkable collection. Unlike many people, including certain pols, who can’t seem to handle any complexity at all.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for National Public Radio, the Washington Post, The Times and other publications.