By Deborah Eisenberg
New York: HarperCollins, 2018.
226 pages. $26.99 (Paperback)
In a grad school discussion on Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, the professor encouraged us, a room full of fiction writers, to carry one lesson forward: try anything. You can do anything you want in stories, he said. It’s not that we needed the reminder, but we did need the reminder: fiction writing is an art rather than a prescribed set of rules. The energy in the room felt palpable. Rarely since then have I felt that exhilaration concerning possibility in short story writing until reading Deborah Eisenberg’s latest, and fifth collection of stories, Your Duck Is My Duck, recently named a finalist for The Story Prize. These six long stories are unpredictable, with a complex network of moving parts. The range of concerns is vast: coming to terms with family origins, the social and environmental damage of multinational corporations, the dangers of falling in love, the meaning of language. For me, the most striking aspect of the book is the shape of the stories, the structural playfulness, each reaching for something different, each refusing to fit a ready mold.
The story “Recalculating” opens on a child pasting photos in an album, asking his pie-baking mother about a photographed boy from decades ago. It’s Uncle Phillip, who left the family years before. Of the child’s wonder, Eisenberg writes: “So, he had been waiting and waiting, and finally, one interesting thing had happened in his life — he had discovered a secret person” (198). While one might expect the story to move toward the meeting of the boy and his uncle, the narrative instead leaps decades ahead to Uncle Phillip’s funeral, halfway across the globe, and the inquisitive boy, now a recent college graduate, is the only family member attending. This funeral trip becomes the still point from which the rest of the story reverberates, even while the structural moves remain unpredictable. The final section, another wild leap forward in time, reveals the inquisitive boy as now a full-fledged professional with balding head and giving speeches. In three steps, we glimpse the wide scope of this man’s life, tied to his tenuous connection with this uncle he’d only met once: at his funeral. It’s a skillful, interesting design that manages to convey fullness while teasing our expectations.
The complexity in Eisenberg’s storytelling is evident throughout the collection, as is her playfulness. “Taj Mahal” is structured around a group of aging actors in conversation, arguing the merits and grievances of a tell-all book written by the grandson of their comrade Anton, a long-deceased director. Each is forced to examine his or her memories, comparing their versions of events with each other’s and against the printed words of this interloper. Interspersed among the conversational scenes are passages from the shocking book, the unverified account that carries authority and weight despite that. Eisenberg then gives us a third party to investigate the sweep of time: Emma, the daughter of a deceased actress much loved by the group and distant relative of the tell-all writer. Emma, who perhaps gives the reader a clearer pathway into the thickets of memory, is beloved due to her mother’s standing in the group, but she also must check her own memories against these published anecdotes. The interplay of memory and conversation in this story is at times stunning, interrogating among other things the nature of storytelling and the reliability of any perspective.
The story “Cross Off and Move On” enacts a similar act of memory excavation through the interweaving of family lore and a younger first person narrator, now grown up, reckoning with her past. In this case, the young woman walks the divide between her constantly scornful, disappointed mother and the mother’s dismissal of the protagonist’s three beloved aunts. Here Eisenberg similarly employs a third party — the protagonist’s cousin, famous violinist Morris Sandler — to provide a counterpoint, another crack of light on the darkness of memory. In all three of these stories larger questions arise, not only questions of belief and authority but of identity as defined by family. How can we reconcile the multiple narratives, and what does it mean when we do? And what happens when the memory bearers pass?
Eisenberg’s willingness to play with time is evident throughout the collection. Leaps in time are abundant, as is the interplay between a character’s present and inherited past. This scope may lead some to call the stories novelistic; the moves create the sense of reverberations across generations. The characters themselves often are preoccupied with passing time in a way that’s heartbreaking and familiar. In “Recalculating,” Uncle Phillip’s best friend, an experienced ballet dancer, ponders: “Still, there was always the feeling that one would get around to being young again. And that when one was young again, life would resume the course from which it had so shockingly deviated” (220). Or these devastating lines from an actress in “Taj Mahal”: “When you’re young everyone is holding hands…but at a certain point, when you get older, you float a little off the surface of the earth…and when you look down, you see that what you thought was the world is just a wrapping around the world, a loose, disintegrating wrapper, with a faded picture of the world on it. The world is where young people live” (59).
The story that feels the most formally challenging, to me, is “Merge,” which seems innocuous at first — rich kid Keith in NYC falls from his father’s grace and needs to get a real job, ending up as caretaker of the widow Cordis, whose husband Friedlander disappeared long ago on “a quest to study the origin of language” (134). Keith nurtures a relationship with the widow’s much younger neighbor Celeste, who as a child became obsessed with Friedlander’s ideas on word acquisition and meaning-making. Celeste’s passions lead her around the world, resulting in her own possible disappearance. The story’s attention moves in interesting ways, initially focusing on Keith but at key moments shifting gracefully into Celeste’s feverish sections (as she battles illness in another country, scribbling cryptic postcards to Keith), and unexpectedly into the widow’s mind as she considers her limited circumstances and romance lost. These multiple points of view give the reader a range of perceptions, almost symphonically creating layers of understanding and heartbreak. I appreciate what some may call the excess of these choices, the willingness to explore so much terrain in a single story.
Then beyond these structural choices, or bound within them, is the thematic exploration of the origins of language. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. In her 2013 Art of Fiction interview in the Paris Review, Eisenberg tells Catherine Steindler, “Well, I am interested in narrative of course, but I like to subordinate it. Or even to pry it out of the piece of paper so it just leaves its tracks — its shape, its motion. For me, a narrative is an expedient to get to something else” (98). That doesn’t mean that she writes stories in service to an idea but suggests that the shape can be fluid, elastic, unpredictable.
The most straightforward story for me is the almost fable-like “The Third Tower,” in which a young woman’s imaginative excess is quite literally forced out of her at the hospital in the shining, far-off city. This story seems to operate in a closed system — another world, already cleansed of excess — and with propulsive action. Of the six stories in the book, it formally felt the most uncluttered; as the girl is cleansed of excess, so is the story form.
Eisenberg’s language in Your Duck Is My Duck is characteristically precise. I found myself charmed by moments when the narration paid subtle attention to inner lives of people and objects. In the title story — about a painter swept off to the island retreat of an ultra-wealthy couple, only to witness the destruction caused by their hunger — Eisenberg includes this beautiful description of sunrise on a distant cliff: “… as if the sun were imparting to the sleeping rock and water dreams of their youth, dreams of the rock’s birth in the earth’s molten core, the water’s ecstatic purity before it was sullied by life …” (20). Similarly, in “Cross Off and Move On,” the daughter describes her solitary mother sitting alone “as if she were dreaming the house and everyone in it” (107). The collection contains many such moments of lightness.
Eisenberg tells the Paris Review: “Even though I complain about the difficulty of writing, I actually don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be something that I can’t do. I want to be able to do something that I am not able to do” (96). This collection is a testament to the art of exploration, of possibility. Eisenberg proves that with Your Duck Is My Duck, she can do anything she wants in a story, even some things she’s not able to do. My former classmates and I should pay attention.
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