The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
In the uniquely unsettling, almost disorienting mimesis that shapes the towered Metropolis of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories, the reader finds himself more than once at a disadvantage. Hers is, after all, a gift for the turbulent undertow, in which the reader, wading in unawares, risks the sensation of drowning.
Each new story begins with a bit of a jerk, as the reader intrudes into unfamiliar territory. Routine questioning is required—“Now, who is doing what to whom?”—as the reader tends to enter in media res, with the feeling, more often than not, of needing to feel for the light switch on the walls of a darkened room.
Not unlike the character in “Rafe’s Coat” who one day begins to watch the soap opera for the first time:
“After an awe-inspiring chord or two, an hour in the lives of the characters of ‘This Brief Candle’ was revealed to the world. During this hour, a girl I later came to know as Ellie confided to her mother that she suspected her boyfriend of cheating on an exam in order to get into medical school to please his father. Then Colleen, apparently a school counselor of some sort, made a phone call to a person who seemed to be the father—no, the stepfather—of another person, named Stevie. She wished to talk to him, she said, about Stevie’s performance. Ominous music suggested that Stevie’s performance was either remarkably poor or a mere pretext for Colleen to see Stevie’s stepfather.”
But, just as, in time, “This Brief Candle” begins to yield its secrets, so, too, do these stories reveal their themes and their joint reality as the pages are turned.
Therefore, the reader suggests that others like him, in tackling Ms. Eisenberg’s collected works, remember that, in reading these stories, breathing is the key. Readers must breathe deeply and slowly, especially upon beginning each new tale, so as to engorge the brain with as much oxygen as possible. And try to relax: picture yourself slowly, slowly reclining into a hot bath, with plumes of steam rising from the attenuated narrative. And, by all means, beware the undertow.
In short: this is not an easy read. And those who attempt to make a marathon of these thousand pages of collected short fiction may come to see the book as not unlike the black, sing-songy monolith that caused so much hoo-hah in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And yet, the simple truth is that we have no better purveyor of literary short fiction alive today than Deborah Eisenberg. And for this reason, and for the intense joy that is to be had in the savoring—slowly, please, and with full attention to the immaculate sentences on the page—her work, attention must be paid.
More important, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg allows us to watch her evolution as a writer, from the stories of her first collection gathered here, 1986’s Transactions in a Foreign Currency (Has it really been so short a time, during which she has accomplished so very much?), especially that very first story, “Flotsam,” which first laid claim to much of what would become Ms. Eisenberg’s domain—the ruthless New York that rewards the rich with more riches while confounding the young, the artistic and the needy with so much apparent possibility and so little actual reward—to her most recent and most potent collection, 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes, whose titular story is one of cultural and literary import great enough to make Eisenberg’s Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Genius Award seem only payment due.
Simply put, there has been no other single piece of short fiction published in the last decade that has so captured our cultural zeitgeist as has “Twilight of the Superheroes.”
“Twilight” succeeds so well because of the way it approaches its subject matter—and necessary subject matter it is, as no collection of stories that presents such a fluoroscoped view of Manhattan and environs could possibly avoid the threat that descended down from the sky on September 11, 2001.
It is, shrewdly, presented here not in the moment, but past tense, in reaction to the notion that a particular apartment’s view of the city is particularly fine:
“When they’d moved in, it probably was the best view on the planet. Then, one morning, out of a clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst.
“For a long time now they’ve been able to hang out here on the terrace without anyone running inside to be sick or bursting into tears or diving under something at a loud noise or even just making macabre jokes or wondering what sort of debris is settling into their drinks. These days they rarely see—as for a time they invariably did—the sky igniting, the stinking smoke bursting out of it like lava, the tiny fragments raining down from the shattered tower as Lyle faints.
“But now it’s unclear what they are, in fact, looking at.”
By pulling Hitchcock’s trick of never showing us the actual event, never detailing it, but, instead, forcing her readers to re-create it for themselves, from personal and/or cultural memory, Ms. Eisenberg makes her concepts visceral:
“The television was saying something. Lucien wheeled around and stared at it, then turned to look out the window; downtown, black smoke was already beginning to pollute the perfect, silken September morning. On the screen, the ruptured, flaming colossus was shedding veils of tiny black specks.
“All circuits were busy, of course; the phone might as well have been a toy. Lucien was trembling as he shut the door of the apartment behind him. His face was wet. Outside, he saw that the sky in the north was still insanely blue.”
But to this particular “Twilight’s” title, as the author puts it: “Superpowers are probably a feature of youth, like Wendy’s ability to fly around with that creepy Peter Pan. Or maybe they belonged to a loftier period of history.”
Either way, they are called into question here. Can such quixotic youth exist in a place and time in which the inhabitants are told to get an “In-Home Survival Kit,” with cash and water and granola bars and the elevators have sprouted handwritten signs that warn, “THINK TWICE?”
The world created in the stories of Deborah Eisenberg is a not a placid place, no matter how much it may seem so on the surface. It is a place that allows for multiple scenarios, travesties, tragedies and dead ends. And so, again, not an easy read. But an important one—one that offers its readers so very much to ponder.