I began this all wrong, so the paragraph you’re reading now is actually a total do-over. Or maybe not “total” – if you swallow certain theories of the universe, a completed draft of that aborted essay exists somewhere in an alternate reality, one which follows the course of my errant lede. As far as I can tell, though, that’s still only a theory. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect that this misstep should transpire in an examination of Laura van den Berg’s second collection of short fiction, as the seven narratives in The Isle of Youth turn again and again at the point-zero restart, obsessed with roads-not-taken and changes so drastic that reality itself seems to skip to a new dimension. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect, but to read The Isle of Youth is to witness how every fresh start only brings a new set of complications. Can this possibly be my life? Any of the six words in that sentence can hold the stress, and facing some intersection of the preposterous and the mundane, the female narrators in van den Berg’s debut collection (What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us) consistently grappled with their own spin on the question. Can THIS possibly be...? An actress settles in a detour town with a stunted career and a terminal boyfriend; an art history student drops out of college to raise her troubled little brother after their parents are killed abroad; a botanist joins a lengthy research mission in Scotland to flee a crumbling relationship. While these women confronted the quotidian fuss of a life they never foresaw, van den Berg played with a counter-level of the unfathomable, situating unseen creatures on the fringe of each narrative: Bigfoot, the mapinguari, the Loch Ness Monster; all these believe-it-or-not haunts proving a minor threat compared to the demands of just getting by. Before the close of that first book, the procession of tangential monsters threatened to lapse into shtick, and in The Isle of Youth van den Berg forces her characters to stand down life’s bafflements with little more than their own wits, prevarications, and sleight of hand. Without a “Missing Link” to further destabilize reality, in this new batch of stories van den Berg achieves the same dramatic weight by utilizing The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle. “By the time you see there’s a decision to be made,” short story master Deborah Eisenberg once wrote, “you can be pretty sure it’s a decision you’ve already made.” Originally I’d decided to use that quote as the opening sentence of this essay, but then I changed my mind after the subsequent paragraphs trailed off into an understory of Eisenberg’s gracefully canted prose, with The Isle of Youth nowhere in sight. What once appeared an ideal opening line now serves as a practical pivot point, clearing the way to set forth how – across three decades of short fiction – Eisenberg has found a way to channel narrative momentum less by plodding points and more by harnessing waves, jarring reality out of focus and gaining force by sharpening it once again. Cobbled out of all four collections of Eisenberg’s stories, from Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) to Twilight of the Superheroes, (2006) The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle incorporates derivations of The Many Worlds Theory (where all the possible outcomes of each decision and action exist in split copies of reality); the observer-effect (named for the guy who suggested that certainty was impossible since the tools for measurement inevitably impact the object being measured); and Viktor Shklovsky’s formalist principle of ostranenie, or “enstrangement” (wherein an artist recasts the common in a way that allows it to be appreciated anew – such as slipping an innocuous “n” into the word “estrangement” and voilà). “We really don’t know to what degree time is linear, and under what circumstances,” suggests a mathematical genius in Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto.” “Is it actually, in fact, manifold? Or pleated? Is it frilly?” Sure, that same genius was also prone to psychic breaks severe enough to require hospitalization, but that’s just the author being mischievous. Even in her earlier work, from the story of a teen girl who realizes she quibbled away a typical day while unaware her mother was dead to the narrative of a middling concert pianist who wakes in a foreign city after his wife has left him, Eisenberg has constructed her work around overlaps of time, with characters knocked for a loop by the “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality about life that makes one so very nervous.” The mysteries of time and space don’t resolve with age, observation, or relative sanity; in the post-9/11 title story of Twilight of the Superheroes, a widowed Manhattanite reflects on the “eternal, poignant weariness of youth” while his own sensory grasp of reality often betrays him: “During his waking hours, the food on his plate would abruptly lose its taste, the painting he was studying would bleach off the canvas, the friend he was talking to would turn into a stranger.” Shklovsky’s oft-repeated quote is that estrangement serves “to make the stone stony,” and Eisenberg makes life lively through that formalist technique of defamiliarization, exploding moments where her characters see their lives in shards of bizarre impossibility, leading her fictions to crystalize at counter-epiphanies – rather than light bulb flashes of enlightenment or moral truth, readers are able to observe how direction takes shape from a blinding overwhelm. “It is amazing to be able to find out what I want to do at any given moment, out of what seems to be nothing, out of not knowing at all,” says the narrator of Eisenberg’s “Days,” a woman who needs to develop entirely new concepts of time and identity after she quits smoking. “It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves.” Should anyone in The Isle of Youth loose captive birds from their palm, don’t believe your eyes. Prestidigitators, performers, twins...amid stories of wit and misdirection van den Berg follows in Eisenberg’s suit, equally fascinated with capitulations and recapitulations, simulacra, and the suddenness of disorder. And when all else fails, van den Berg’s characters resort to the layperson’s application of The Many Worlds theory: the good old-fashioned whopper. “Talking to someone who didn’t know me, who couldn’t separate the truth from the lie, always gave me the most ruthless sense of freedom,” says the narrator of “Acrobat.” That unbound freedom equates to a form of coherent superposition, the theoretical condition of existing in all possible states at once. Imagine two complete strangers who have yet to meet or speak – between them, a limitless world of possibility exists. Superposition, however, immediately collapses on contact: truth or lie, consequences unfold and the infinite gives way. Distracted by a trio of Parisian street performers, the fib-prone narrator of “Acrobat” fails to hear a rather crucial bit of information about why her husband has decided to leave her right then and there. Among the next available steps, she chooses one of the least likely, following the acrobats from the Jardin de Tuileries to the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower, stopping at cafés and bistros for cigarettes and meals before finally joining the trio at a house party jammed with costumed contortionists and buskers. Though thoroughly disorienting, “Acrobat” applies The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle to avoid pure randomness, with the narrator moving forward in time while trying to recapture a missed point. With a billion swirling atoms of possibility and just that one fixed coordinate, a story takes shape as van den Berg brings the unexpected into brilliant focus. Often the best measure of a presence is the quality of its absence, and “Lessons” is the lone story in The Isle of Youth where van den Berg abandons The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle, tipping her hand with foreshadowing and narrative ineluctability: a teenage survivalist drags her little brother along to serve as the lookout while she and her cousins pull a series of small-time stickup jobs. Inexorable forces + cute kid in peril = no room to breathe. Leaving a little wiggle room for the reader avoids manipulation, but in “Lessons” the kid’s name is Pinky and he just wants to build a robot and however many outcomes exist, you can be certain that none bode well. Throughout the rest of The Isle of Youth, van den Berg’s protagonists continue to ask can this possibly be my life, with only the thread of family ties binding them to a prior state of being. Without ever dipping into fabulism or the surreal, the twin-swapping title story and the deceptively profound “Opa-Locka” challenge perceived reality; in the latter, sisters at loose ends decide to start their own detective agency, but as the mismatched duo puzzle out the disappearances of a client’s husband and their own long-gone father, the misguided energy of their surveillance skews the picture: “I did feel partly responsible for whatever it was that had happened to her husband,” says the more sensible sister, “as though our mere presence had set something in motion that might have remained dormant otherwise.” “Opa-Locka” begins amid the familiar tropes of a stakeout, but from the sisters’ flawed investigation van den Berg tells an entirely different story, one of secrets, risk, loss, and “two little girls who tried to make something out of nothing.” Such is the legerdemain of The Isle of Youth – which itself is both an ideal of new beginnings and also some shabby tourist trap off the coast of Cuba. There are few tidy resolutions between these alternate versions, though that shouldn’t come as any surprise: one of basic tenets of The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that things don’t get any easier, they only get different.
Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia. –Zadie Smith, "This is how it feels to me," in The Guardian, October 13, 2001. If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it. We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough). The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet. None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far. We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers? Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature. Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years. 1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance. 2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature. As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow. 3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals. 4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel. While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America. When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it. 5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production. It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place. * * * I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade. Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Reality Hunger 5 months 2. 5. Stoner 6 months 3. 8. Tinkers 2 months 4. 6. The Big Short 4 months 5. (tie) - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 1 month 5. (tie) - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 1 month 7. 10. Wolf Hall 6 months 8. 9. War and Peace 3 months 9. - The Girl Who Played With Fire 1 month 10. - Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 1 month With four books -- The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? -- graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer's 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list. And it's Shields' controversial Reality Hunger that's still holding on to our top spot. Near Misses: Twilight of the Superheroes, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Reality Hunger 4 months 2. 2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 6 months 3. 4. Let the Great World Spin 6 months 4. 5. The Mystery Guest 6 months 5. 6. Stoner 5 months 6. 8. The Big Short 3 months 7. 9. The Interrogative Mood 6 months 8. - Tinkers 1 month 9. 10. War and Peace 2 months 10. 7. Wolf Hall 5 months This month, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger slips into the top spot. Shields recently offered an energetic defense of the book and an accompanying reading list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel's list and number eight on our readers' list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. We've been learning more about Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is the surprise Pulitzer winner and small press hero, Tinkers by Paul Harding. Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End See Also: Last month's list
By most external measures, Deborah Eisenberg has been on a roll lately. There are the rarefied reviews that greeted 2006's Twilight of the Superheroes ("masterful"; "masterly"; "wise, careful, benevolent"). There's the 2009 MacArthur "Genius" Grant. And, just this month, there's the publication of a 950-plus page omnibus that - like a camera pulling back from a single edifice to reveal the skyline's sweep - lays bare the scope of what she's been up to these last 30 years. If Eisenberg's Collected Stories tell us anything, though, it's that external measures are the least interesting kind, and, reached by phone at her New York apartment, she expresses a kind of shambolic bemusement at her achievements, as though they might just as easily have accrued to some other fiction writer who shares her name. "I'm terribly inarticulate," she apologizes at one point. "Glacially slow," is how she describes her process at another. Actually, she's frightfully quick. In conversation as on the page, she moves fluidly from the telling detail to the big idea and back again. Metaphors emerge at thoughtful intervals, like amuse-bouche at a casually brilliant restaurant. But it would be a mistake to write off Eisenberg's eloquent disavowal of her own eloquence as mere good manners. Rather, it is emblematic of the antinomies that animate her long short stories: articulate muzziness, ironic passion, controlled chaos. Together, they comprise an ethos we might call active passivity - a kind of curiosity about the things that simply seem to happen to one. That is, against the aura of willful exertion that usually clings to the word "master," The Collected Stories arise from their maker's patient attunement to the accidents of character and of art. For Eisenberg, the first accident was to be raised in Winnetka, Illinois, a predominantly Gentile suburb 20 miles north of Chicago. Some of the Eisenhower-era temperament of the place can be glimpsed in her Reagen-era short story "The Robbery." Though there were "some deeply, deeply liberal people there," she says now, "It was very conservative in certain ways," and sharply divided from the Jewish enclaves it abutted. She was not conscious of the "anti-Semitic element" until after she left, but had a sense of being different from an early age. Outwardly a "very nice girl," she felt inwardly "like a complete Martian." This is in some measure the fate of all sensitive and intelligent children, existing as they do in a world controlled by somewhat less sensitive and intelligent adults. (Eisenberg would soon be plucked from her public school and packed off to a boarding academy in Vermont.) But her sense of unbelonging had a political dimension that soon made itself felt. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she managed to get herself thrown in jail as part of a group working on a project "in a KKK county somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. . . . I can't take credit for it," she insists (a high-school friend had invited her along) but "It was probably the thing I'm most proud of in my whole life." It was what happened afterward, however, that would make the biggest impression on her art. She returned north to find the adult world eager to chalk the injustices she'd witnessed up to adolescent hyperbole. "It was an eye-opening experience: the experience of being told you didn't see what you saw." The ultimate remedy for this estrangement lay in the city, which had always seemed "very glamorous and beautiful" to Eisenberg - a glamor more powerful for being forbidden. "'Lock your door, Jill'" says the mother in "The Robbery," as she drives her daughter in to one of the stately old department stores, or to a matinee when the ballet came to town . . . and at that moment the earth seemed to become transparent, and they would drive toward its center, penetrating worlds and then worlds. When they reemerged on the surface, which was settled on a human scale with houses and shrubs and newly covered driveways, her mother would draw in her breath deeply, and the road would heal up behind them and become opaque. But later the hidden day would emit around Jill the troubling light of a dream. After a stint at Marlboro College and a period of hitchhiking around the country with a boyfriend, Eisenberg ended up in New York. She was rudderless, directionless, "confused and desperate," she remembers, "in the condition of a beached whale. . . . I was always confused in those days." New York did not end that confusion so much as provide a hospitable setting for it, as it would for so many of Eisenberg's characters. "My expectations were not of a glittering life of any sort, but I loved the metropolitan tolerance, the metropolitan disorder, the feeling of something continually being generated, even if it was anarchic, and quite scary." She was comforted, too, by the anonymity the city offered. "It was like crawling into a great rumpled bed," she says approvingly. "A bed in which there are already people." One of those people was the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, whose life had been running on a parallel track. Having grown up even more fully ensconced in the fruits of postwar prosperity - Putney; Harvard; father the editor of The New Yorker - Shawn had grown concomitantly more uneasy about the provenance of those fruits (as he describes in his recent book, Essays). When he and Eisenberg began seeing each other, it was not only a meeting of the minds - "the wonderful writer with whom I live," is how she refers to him these days - but also the opening, albeit obscure, of a vocational path. The first story she wrote was a diary-like thing called "Days," whose precipitating incident was the protagonist's decision to quit smoking. "My only autobiographical story," Eisenberg calls it. Though she began it many years after she herself had given up cigarettes, she was, like her protagonist, "falling apart" at the time of composition. "I was in terrible shape," she recalls, "like a heap of shredded paper on the floor. [Shawn] gave me a pen and paper and said, well you have nothing to lose." The result is, in its brilliant images, absurdist wit, and sensitivity to the slightest shifts in the inner life of its protagonist, like Svevo's Confessions of Zeno in miniature. And one senses, between the lines, a writer discovering her own powers. Late in the story, the narrator suggests that It is amazing to be able to find out what I want to do at any given moment, out of what seems to be nothing, out of not knowing at all. It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves. Another critical intervention - or happy accident, depending on one's orientation - came in the person of Joe Papp, renowned founder and director of New York's Public Theater. After a friend of Eisenberg's had directed a staged reading of "Days" at the Public, Papp asked her to write something for the theater. At first, she declined, but when he offered money, she set to work on her first and only play, Pastorale. Eisenberg's ear for dialogue, soon to be celebrated, was at that point an unknown quantity, even to herself; "Days" had contained relatively few lines of direct speech. But she felt "weirdly confident" in Pastorale, and even though Papp "ended up hating it," she might not have become a professional writer had he not first mistaken her for one. A series of first-person stories followed, which, somewhat to their author's surprise, would become the collection Transactions in a Foreign Currency. As in "Days," the form of the dramatic monologue offered Eisenberg intimate, moment-by-moment access to the surprises and disappointments of her characters. She had a sense that she was cheating, somehow, by making all of her protagonists an "I," but feared that the linguistic plasticity that interested her wouldn't be possible otherwise. And then one day, she says, she decided that it would. She began writing her first third-person stories, which would appear in her breakout collection, Under the 82nd Airborne. "It had taken me all these years to figure it out," she says. "The stories had taken shape under water, sort of." In the shift from first- to third-person, she had discovered a voice to match her sensibility: a voice struggling toward objective fidelity to subjectivity of lived life. It is the sound of a mind talking to itself, replete with hesitations, gaps, interjections (of course), and adverbs, which Eisenberg wields more expertly than any writer since Henry James. Expressionism and realism reveal themselves as aspects of a single phenomenon. Here, for example, is the waitress Patty, in "A Cautionary Tale," climbing into the lap of one of her customers, a transvestite dancer named Ginger (in this scene wearing theatrical wings). Ginger brushed his cheek against Patty's lashes, and when she opened her eyes again the eyes that gleamed back were feral and slanting. "Little flower mouth," he said, and Patty's mouth opened, too, as he arched, letting her glide it from his jeweled earlobe down his polished neck and along the sweep of his collarbone, but there was a quick explosion in her brain as "Waitress! Waitress!" someone called, and Patty scrambled trembling to her feet, scraping her shoulder against papier-mâché. The other (related) innovation of Under the 82nd Airborne was its explicit engagement with the political. Its title story is set in Honduras, which the Reagan Administration had been using to facilitate not-so-covert aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Another story, "Holy Week" - and three in the collection that followed, All Around Atlantis - would take place in Central American landscapes scarred by three-plus decades of antidemocratic U.S. interventions. These stories arose, Eisenberg says, from her travels in the region with Shawn, which began around the time of the Iran-Contra scandal and continued through the end of the go-go '80s. Shawn, she says was very interested to see Nicaragua, to see a socialist revolution. Of course, I didn't know a socialist from a socialite. But I wanted to see Guatemala. You know...lakes, volcanoes. Wallace asked did I know what I was talking about, and suggested I do some reading. I said I'd do it when I got back. Then again, Eisenberg was not exactly disinterested in the subject of justice. She admits, I did start to read about U.S. policy in the region and then wanted very much to go to Honduras. . . . The whole thing was so shattering, that to come back to the unreality that New York was was simply intolerable for a while, so we kept going back and back. Together, Under the 82nd Airborne and All Around Atlantis work to suggest a context for the lives of privilege and disorder depicted in Eisenberg's earlier fiction. As she puts it, "Guatemala provided a way to understand what was going on in my own country, which is corporatocracy." It was a short jump from seeing U.S. military power propping up banana republics abroad to the sense of pervasive but intangible powers at home - a real world behind the unreal world, or vice versa. "Well, actually," Eisenberg corrects herself, "there are two sets of real worlds and two sets of unreal worlds. . . . There's the actual real-real, which is always in flux," and there's "the real world in the sense of the structures that form the world we live in." And then, she says, confidence growing, there's "the very unreal world that we in the U.S. live in, the parochial world of what used to be the middle class and is the educated elite now that the middle class doesn't exist anymore." And finally there's the subjunctive unreality - the personal realm of desire and wish and dream - we move through daily. This layering of worlds and the attempt to negotiate it would persist in Twilight of the Superheroes, set against the backdrop of September 11 and the War on Terror. Of course ideas - especially political ideas, and especially one's own - pose certain risks for fiction. It is a peculiarity of Eisenberg's writing (Norman Rush may be her only peer in this) that it manages to adumbrate "the structures of the world we live in" without ever telling us what to do. A key strategy is irony, and particularly a willingness to concede that right-minded characters are often wrong and wrong-minded characters right. Take "A Cautionary Tale," for example: about which Eisenberg says, "I amused myself partly by instilling attitudes that are mine" not in Patty, the heroine, but in an "absolutely intolerable," fire-breathing liberal named Stuart. Or take "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," from 2003, whose main character, Lulu, combines glimmerings of historical awareness with utter interpersonal ineptitude. In The Collected Stories, as in the actual-real-real, people rarely manage to keep their personal and political lives consistent. Indeed, Eisenberg points out, fiction liberates one from the burdens of consistency. I think one of the great things about fiction is that you don't have to adhere to a formal idea about building a case. The responsibility is almost to go beyond the confines of any case you could build. And people do talk about things, of course. They don't just talk about nail polish. You can go for days thinking, "All anybody cares about anymore is square footage," and then have three extraordinary conversations in the grocery store. It helps, she says, that her own ideas "aren't even complete. Always, they're being shaped by reality." That's actual real reality, of course, which may help to explain why the last decade (which saw "reality-based community" become an epithet) so unsettled Eisenberg's characters. "This is a very interesting moment to be alive," she says, "and that is the only thing that makes it bearable." As for what comes next, she has "absolutely no idea. I really want to move along . . . I really do. But I'm sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears." Of course, she has felt glacially slow and terribly inarticulate in writing her first 27 stories. "But one wants to say, oh, when I complained then, I wasn't really serious. Now I'm serious. I have to reconfigure my brain somehow. . . . It hasn't quite reconfigured itself yet." This last emendation - from the active voice to the reflexive - has come to seem like a classic Eisenberg move. It's as if a too-proprietary stance toward her own mind might endanger the flow of perceptions that shape her art. As if knowing might get in the way of seeing, and feeling. But one has every confidence that eventually active passivity, or passive activity, will win out - that her brain will have been reconfigured. And if, for all her perceptiveness, Deborah Eisenberg can't quite see what she's accomplished in all these years of hurling herself against pieces of paper - "I myself don't see any particular thing in this collection," she confesses - perhaps she doesn't need to. The actual, real reality is there, between the covers of The Collected Stories, waiting for prepared spirits to receive it. (Photo © Diana Michener) Bonus Links: An excerpt from The Collected Stories Our review of Under the 82nd Airborne Deborah Eisenberg reads from "Revenge of the Dinosaurs"
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list
Of Lists, Generally Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time - which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile - we are nowadays "obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists." The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be "our egalitarian and plural society," which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether. Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to - lists that not only collect objects but rank them - would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order): They are always incomplete - either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person? They present a false picture of the world, wherein "best" appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does "Third Best Living Drummer" mean, exactly? They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn't? Who has the audacity? Who has the right? Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it's probably its hospitality to debate that makes the "Best Of" list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred - one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself - but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one's own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away. Of One List, More Particularly We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call "the fascination of the list." (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we've watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn't resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the "Best of the Decade" cataloguing to institutions we didn't quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, - as Gass knows - is fun. We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. "Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like," an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than "Best of the Millennium," so we braced ourselves and went for it. Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of "The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" should be arrived at by voting. This meant - logically, unfairly - that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn't mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there. Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation - natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared. Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial. To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus. We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five. Can Anything Be Learned from a List? For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we'd have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist. Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres - science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free - for better or for worse - with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde. Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list - a piece of potential evidence to mull over - seemed to increase the volume and the heat. Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn't make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we'd thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould's Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can't speak for our readers, but I don't think there's a single Millions contributor whose personal "To Be Read" list wasn't shaken up as a result of this series. Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn't resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green's The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder's preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive. Of Lists, Personally As the "Best of the Millennium" discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. "The panelists can't possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections" was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I'd heard this line of reasoning, if that's the right word. As Carl Wilson notes in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there's a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction - to assume (brace yourself: I'm about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections - people who were, yes, moved by it - may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve - and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her - than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced. To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture - I've come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism - may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern - hype, backlash, counterbacklash - it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value. I prefer Kant's definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I've nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of purposiveness without purpose - either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task. That last bit - an object "rationally shaped to perform an undefined task" seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I've loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our "Best of the Millennium" experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you've found ours useful, though for what we wouldn't presume to say.
Life is impossible; it can't possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one's despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg's stories remind me of William Maxwell's; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent. The Millions on Eisenberg. Eisenberg a literary genius. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
We take a break from our countdown to salute this year's literary "Genius grant" winners (the full list of Geniuses). The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This year’s literary geniuses are: Millions favorite Deborah Eisenberg was a winner this year. The grant seems perfect for this incredibly talented but not very prolific short story writer. Many critics have been jumping on the Eisenberg bandwagon in recent years, and this honor seems sure to cement her in the pantheon of contemporary masters. Eisenberg's masterpiece (as yet) is Twilight of the Superheroes, and ten years before that saw the publication of All Around Atlantis and 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). Garth wrote a long and essential consideration of Eisenberg nearly two years ago, and prior to that, Andrew wrote of seeing Eisenberg and longtime companion Wallace Shawn in Toronto. Edwidge Danticat is another well-known name, at least in literary circles. The Hatian-American writer has written several books. She received a National Book Award nomination for her 1996 collection Krik? Krak!, and more recently her novel The Dew Breaker and memoir Brother, I'm Dying won praise. Danticat first rose to prominence when her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory was selected for Oprah's book club. Finally, MacArthur honored poet Heather McHugh, of whom the judges say, "Heather McHugh is a poet whose intricately patterned compositions explore various aspects of the human condition and inspire wonder in the unexpected associations that language can evoke." Her collection Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, published in 1994, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Eyeshot, published in 2003, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
A streetcar along the lake brings you to a low-rise white building where artists and artisans further their craft. It's evening, somewhat deserted, but turn down one hallway and the tools of their trade remain in public view. Turn another corner and photographic art lines the walls.In a secluded room: a sea of café tables. Free coffee at the back. Small lamps on each table for warm candle-lit effect as the house lights dim and the stage lights go on. Rows of seating near the entrance - for stragglers and for the lazy and for the shy.This has been the setting for most of the literary readings I've attended in the past four years. The Brigantine Room is one of four venues within Toronto's Harbourfront complex where the most private of writers take the stage and transform into the most gregarious of orators. Or they try. Or some of them try.Maisonneuve ran an article last month bemoaning the state of the literary reading. Provocatively titled "Why are literary readings so excruciatingly bad?" the piece deconstructed the reading and argued, quite reasonably, for greater effort on the part of organizers, writers, and audience alike to transform what is often a flat and flaccid affair into a spirited, even enthralling, experience.First, the venue must be suitable. Bars and cafés are often used, and while they create an ambiance of sorts and allow the speakers and the spoken-to to be appropriately lubricated (which, not incidentally, allows the venue itself to reap some economic reward), the downside of all this is excessive kitchen noise, the clinking of glasses and bottles, and people who have become so obnoxiously lubricated that the quiet little literary event happening in their midst can't compete.Over the years, the Brigantine Room has taken some of the best trappings of the café experience and integrated them into a more controlled literary environment. Effective lighting, café tables, noiseless refreshments. A romantic stillness greets the author who can then take the audience on a journey, unruffled by extraneous noise.Troublingly, for the most recent reading I attended - an evening with Irvine Welsh - the organizers had removed the café tables, replacing them with rows of chairs, presumably to accommodate the hordes of fans, and there was no coffee, or any other refreshment to be had. Not too sure what to make of that.At any rate, once the ambiance is set, the writer must become an effective orator. The author could assume character voices. Deborah Eisenberg memorably slipped into a whole range of voices for the characters in her short story "Some Other, Better Otto", from Twilight of the Superheroes at a reading two years ago. Irvine Welsh also added drama to a reading from his most recent novel Crime by voicing its characters.Visual aids can be effective. When I heard scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki "read" from a recent autobiography, what he really gave was a slideshow presentation, which, coupled with his engaging running commentary, made for a breezy event. Some of the best "readings" I've been to have incorporated one or more of: tangential asides, slideshows, interviews, panel discussions, and Q and A.Some authors, even without dramatic or visual aids, are just so naturally affable that the audience is with them right from the start. A number of years ago, in a large theatrical venue, John Irving regaled us with excerpts from what was then his latest opus, along with passages from a work in progress. His seemingly natural ease at the podium kept the audience riveted.Then of course there's the audience member, without whose focus and attentiveness the whole endeavor could unravel. There are times, of course, when the mind wanders. Every audience member has his own narrative playing out in his head, and it's not unheard of for a speaker to unwittingly say something during the course of the reading that triggers some private thought in the hapless audience member, who then drifts off for several minutes and returns, hopelessly dispirited and lost - unable to simply flip back a few pages.It's a bit of a crapshoot. Some of the finest writers aren't comfortable in such a public setting - and it shows. Some venues are better suited to watching the hockey game than being transported on a literary journey. And some listeners just need to sharpen their concentration skills a little bit. But when it all comes magically together, and when all sides rise to the challenge, a literary reading can linger with you long after the house lights come up and you've boarded that streetcar for the lonely ride back to reality.
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.
Jerome Weeks has published a long, thoughtful essay asking why all the talk about our culture needing a great "9/11 novel." Don Delillo has this discussion back in the book pages with his new book, Falling Man, though Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Deborah Eisenberg's collection Twilight of the Superheroes among several others are examples of so-called "9/11 fiction." Weeks writes:Why do we expect our writers to produce the "Great 9/11 novel" anyway? Has there ever been a "great" Pearl Harbor novel -- the event most often compared to the Towers' collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that memory can conjure up, and it surely doesn't qualify as great.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a "9/11 novel." Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a "9/11 novel" in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works, as Jerome Weeks implies. What we are really looking for (as ever) is a defining novel of our time.
It was about half way through Deborah Eisenberg's reading that I saw that familiar shape. The back of a head, maybe six rows in front of me and off toward the aisle. It was unmistakable - balding, grayish and round, round like a human head really ought to be, perched on the shoulders of a diminutive gentleman. It was unmistakable, yet highly improbable, given my complete ignorance of Deborah Eisenberg's private life.Question: what do The Moderns (IMDb), My Dinner With Andre (IMDb), The Princess Bride (IMDb), and a number of Woody Allen films all have in common? They all benefit from the presence of the great Wallace Shawn, actor and writer. And there, on a cold late-October afternoon, in an auditorium down by the lake, was someone who looked exactly like Wallace Shawn. At this point I was not even entertaining the possibility that it really might be him. After all, why would Mr. Shawn leave the familiarity of his Manhattan apartment for the chill of Lake Ontario? In October? That, to pilfer shamelessly from the man himself, would be inconceivable. No, it must be his double. A northern doppelganger for the ultimate New Yorker.Then intermission came. I espied Ms. Eisenberg up in the balcony, and there, beside her, was that unmistakable head, now absent from the seat in front of me. Suddenly my doppelganger theory was becoming increasingly less likely, and what was once inconceivable was now irrefutable - Wallace Shawn was in the audience. A quick Web search later that day would fill in the blanks, and inform me about the decades-long relationship between the two.After the readings, there he was again - standing alone in the foyer, looking bemused. (When does he ever not look bemused?). So I approached and said to him, cleverly, "Hey, you're Wallace Shawn!" "Yes !.... I am!" he exclaimed sounding like every comic character he's ever played. I then welcomed him to Toronto and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He replied with a cheery "Great!" It was at this point in our Algonquin Round Table discussion that an elderly gentleman brazenly muscled in on our conversation, and so I retreated. All those questions left unasked - not just about his own work but that of his father, legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn. Ah well, another time.As for Deborah Eisenberg, she delighted the audience with a short story from her latest collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. The story - "Some Other, Better Otto" - introduced us to a 60-ish grouch named Otto, and his much younger lover, the thoughtful William. Otto was bringing William to a Thanksgiving celebration where we would meet his siblings. As Eisenberg says, you meet people in your family that you would never happen to run into otherwise.Eisenberg's reading was one of the highlights of the International Festival of Authors, ten days of readings, talks, and panel discussions. Another high point was the chance to hear, and later to briefly meet, Edward P. Jones, who read from his story "Blindsided", from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. Blindsided begins with a black woman's bus ride to see Sam Cooke in Washington D.C. Prior to her outing, her white boss warns her that all black peoples' entertainment will lead to blindness. And during the course of the story, on the bus ride, she quickly and unexpectedly goes blind. And that's just the beginning. With its eccentric characters and the heart-breaking plot, the story delicately balances humor and moments of extreme poignancy.The iconic Ralph Steadman, in town to promote his book The Joke's Over, was also at the festival presenting a slideshow of his illustrations, many of which have given surreal shape to Hunter Thompson's hallucinatory and incendiary prose. Indeed, throughout Steadman's slideshow, with its verbal asides, his late friend and partner-in-crime was ever-present.A couple of years ago I read and wrote about Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading in which he touches on the library in all its variations, throughout history, throughout the world. Now Manguel delves even deeper with a new work The Library at Night. During a reading and a panel discussion at the festival, Manguel spoke of his own private library in France, of losing himself in its stacks, and of the distinctions between day and night. During the day, one seeks to find - one moves purposefully. At night, the activity becomes more ghostlike. Books speak to each other and conspire, the searcher going wherever the books lead him.Manguel contrasts the processes of reading and writing (two different kinds of solitude). After writing, the writer likes to be with other writers who understand, but not necessarily to talk about the specific work. More of a silent understanding. Whereas after reading and being moved by a written work, a reader becomes evangelical about it and would like nothing more than to spread the word.He also contrasts such classical libraries as Alexandria (the library that contained everything) with the web (the library that contains anything.) He's far from anti-internet, but believes it must never take the place of the real thing. And he prefers his own massive private library to public libraries or archives if only because he would always want to keep the book, and mark it up. Manguel loves the tangibility of books. One's own books. They remind us who we are, he says. They provide optimism in the face of encroaching stupidity and horror.