In the fiction-writing course I took my junior year of college, a professor assigned a story by Deborah Eisenberg, a writer of whom I’d never heard. We’d been studying the art of dialogue, and I knew enough to admire the characters’ hesitations and evasions, but somehow the story didn’t quite ignite for me. This is a polite way of saying that I was impatient and stupid, and a bad student to boot – I think I must have skimmed the reading in the half-hour before class, still hung over from the previous night. Later, in graduate school, I had a chance to hear Eisenberg read a newer story, and the sound of her voice – surprised and surprising, hilarious and human – made me regret everything my undergraduate arrogance had hidden from me. Well, I’ve spent the years since making up for lost time. After ripping through 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes, twice, and then All Around Atlantis (1997), I managed to track down a $32 print-on-demand paperback of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, which combines her first two collections, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) and Under the 82nd Airborne (1992). (Surely it’s time for these to be reissued separately. Paging FSG Classics!) As I started in on Under the 82nd Airborne – the last remaining unread stories – I found myself slowing down, like a kid conserving candy. This gave me some time to think about why Eisenberg’s work affected me so strongly, and why she had vaulted, during that 2005 reading, directly to the head of my list of favorite writers.
Eisenberg writes slowly – 28 stories in about as many years – but her body of work hardly feels insubstantial. Rather, each of her unhurried narratives attains the philosophical and psychological depth of a novel. Where a more conventional writer persuades the reader through the accumulation of realistic detail, Eisenberg pays minute, almost Proustian attention to the phenomenal space in which those details occur. She understands that to be human is to be continually “thrown into” the present, and so her characters seem as surprised to find themselves caught up in stories as we are to find them there. Visual features – animals, faces, furniture – list and loom out of defamiliarized landscapes. The characteristic mood is a kind of beguiling bewilderment.
In “A Cautionary Tale,” for example, a protagonist named Patty is subletting a studio in an apartment building full of mildly deranged New Yorkers.
When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they’d lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson’s puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking.
There is a kind of deadpan comedy here, the clash of linguistic registers (“flopped” vs. “supine”) undercut by the rhythmic banality of “Mrs. Jorgenson,” but there’s also a great compassion, both for Mrs. Jorgenson and for tender, mixed-up Patty. The imprecisions – “a psychic net” “phantom form” “puffy ankle” – are echt Eisenberg: not loose writing, but an attempt to capture on the page the looseness of consciousness. That is, we can see Patty’s world only as clearly as Patty can herself.
The sum of Eisenberg’s comedy and her compassion is a rich and old-fashioned irony, which seem part of her authorial birthright, as natural to her as breathing. Two other legacies carried over into Under the 82nd Airborne are an ear for the eccentricities of speech (interjections like “well” and “obviously” leaven even third-person narration) and a gift for audacious, dreamlike metaphors. The two align neatly in a later scene from “A Cautionary Tale.” Patty’s new roommate, a dilettante named Stuart, has decided that they should have intercourse. She rebuffs him in a passage I can’t resist quoting at length:
“I’m not attracted to you, Stuart”
“You would become attracted to me if you were to sleep with me,” he argued affably.
“But I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.
“Don’t you see the beauty of it, Patty? It’s sound in every way – politically, economically, aesthetically. You and I would be an entire ecology, generating and utilizing our own energies.”
“I’m not here to…to provide physiological release for you,” she said.
“Why not? I’m here to provide it for you. Listen, you’re going to start suffering from pelvic distress one of these days. There could even be colonic or arterial consequences, you know.”
It wasn’t fair, Patty thought – Stuart obviously felt entitled to win every argument just because he knew more words than she did. She could only repeat herself stubbornly while he continued to whine and orate, disguising his little project in various rationales, until it seemed that one wolf, in different silly bonnets, was peeping out at her from behind a circle of trees.
As wonderful as this is – his “little project!” “silly bonnets!” – Under the 82nd Airborne might represent merely a refinement of the technique of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, were Eisenberg not such an ambitious writer. Where the earlier collection plumbed the emotional depths of doomed romances and urban anomie, Under the 82nd Airborne strikes out for thematic territory the feckless Stuart can only gesture at: the political, the economic, and the aesthetic. As “A Cautionary Tale” unfolds, the dialogue will open up to admit long, idea-rich speeches from Stuart and from several intellectual foils. And in the stories that follow, Eisenberg will throw her urban characters into settings that force them to confront cultural difference and the ugliness of privilege.
The most haunting of these, the title story and “Holy Week,” draw on the time Eisenberg spent abroad in the 1980s. Throughout Central America, the Reagan administration was funding a series of proxy wars against Soviet-backed revolutions, and Eisenberg and her partner, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, spent time touring the affected countries. Shawn wrote directly and wrenchingly about his experience in a one-man drama called The Fever. In fiction, however, such directness can easily give way to didacticism. The method of Under the 82nd Airborne allows Eisenberg to avoid this trap. As in “A Cautionary Tale,” we stay rooted in the consciousness of the protagonists, with little authorial intrusion. Characters can speak directly about politics, but Eisenberg refuses to privilege or denigrate their positions. Her wayward Norteamericanos are no more mixed-up than Patty, and she extends them no less of her sympathy and humor.
Absent any clear “message,” the chief effect is a radical raising of emotional stakes. When Patty makes a mess of her life in New York, she is the one who suffers. When Dennis, the peripatetic food journalist of “Holy Week,” fails to challenge the system that has put him in Honduras (or anyway, I think it’s Honduras), a whole country suffers with him. In each case, Eisenberg does not pretend to have solutions. “All right,” Dennis thinks at the end of “Holy Week.”
Yes, the planet is littered with bodies…But will it improve, the world, if Sarah and I stay in and subsist on a diet of microwaved potatoes? Because I really don’t think – and this is something I’ll say to Sarah when she’s herself again, I suppose – that by the standards of any sane person it could be considered a crime to go to a restaurant.
Nested within massive geopolitical conflicts, the tensions between men and women like Dennis and Sarah start to seem very much like dirty wars, the collisions of irresistible forces and immovable objects.
Under the 82nd Airborne’s dialectic of power and powerlessness anticipates the themes and settings of subsequent Eisenberg productions including “The Lake” and “Flaw in the Design,” and, in its diary-like arrangement, a story like “Holy Week” presages the formal adventurousness of “Twilight of the Superheroes.” But, even as it consolidates its strengths, Eisenberg’s fiction continues to leave room for “enormous changes at the last minute” (in the formulation of Grace Paley, a writer Eisenberg sometimes resembles). The most wonderful thing about her short stories – the thing I wish were true of my own – is that it’s impossible to guess, from sentence to sentence, what might come next.
As a kind of salute, then, I’ll close with a semi-non sequitur: The Friday after Thanksgiving last year, my wife and I found ourselves gridlocked on the New Jersey Turnpike. Our rented car and the tens of thousands stretching ahead and behind us were probably sputtering out enough greenhouse gases to kill several dozen polar bears and maybe a rare species of cancer-curing Arctic flower. Patience continued – well, continues – not to be among my virtues. I was halfway through Under the 82nd Airborne, so I took it out and began to read aloud, and there, in the failing light at the heart of the Eastern Seaboard, we finished the book. I can’t say the world changed, obviously. But for as long as those stories lasted, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.