Deborah Eisenberg, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
2010, 992 pages, paperback, $22
few writers today offer such a complete map of human consciousness as short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. Master of the transitory, liminal stages for which the short story seems to have been invented, Eisenberg registers those fleeting, deceptively simple moments of profound importance and turns them into art. She spins her quiet revelations into gold.
Reading Eisenberg’s fiction is like staring at a photograph whose edges are blurred. Even if we don’t see exactly where her characters have been or where they’re going, their pasts and futures inform a present that manifests itself in crisp relief. Eisenberg picks her moments of tension carefully. She shows us precisely where the floor drops away and where the ceiling opens up. And it’s always in the small gestures—the light in a hotel room, the tinkling of a fork, the clink of a bottle. Whether in Latin America or New York, her settings have a ring of authenticity. Her dialogue is pitch perfect, her details vivid and resonant.
If Eisenberg remains overlooked as a writer it can only be because her genre is overlooked as a form. The novel might be recently dead, but the short story wasted away decades ago. Ironically, the greatest writers composing in English today are almost exclusively writing in this “deceased” genre. Like Alice Munro and William Trevor, like Chekhov before them, Eisenberg says more about the human condition in fifteen pages than most novelists say in four hundred. You would have to look to the Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas—whom Eisenberg herself has compared to Marcel Proust—to find a contemporary voice as talented at articulating her subjects’ psychological realms. Although she paints desolate interior landscapes of the individual, her stories are never stifling, barren, or claustrophobic. If her heroines seem neurotic, depressed, or lost, her prose always lifts the reader out of the morass to see what is possible. Eisenberg takes enormous risks with narrative structure, but her command of language is always there to reassure you.
In fact, her prose cuts so sharply she seems to anticipate her readers’ emotional responses. We find insights we’ve always known were true but never believed were possible to express in words. I call it the “Eisenberg effect,” because I don’t know of any other living writer who can pull this off so well. Eisenberg’s fiction borders on déjà vu: descriptions appear so strangely familiar you think the illumination must also have happened to you.
Yet the publication of a retrospective work such as Eisenberg’s Collected Stories can be a bittersweet occasion. Career-spanning collections tend to bury the uniqueness of the smaller books contained within. I have encountered this problem while reading the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Trevor. Big collections like these paint with broad brushstrokes. You survey the canvas, but you don’t see the subtle ways, thematic or otherwise, in which stories within the smaller books are linked. With such collections, historical process gets smoothed over; it’s difficult to view each story as a product of that particular phase in a writer’s career. Even in paperback, big collections aren’t very portable. For some, there’s the temptation to plow through as though the book were a novel. At 992 pages, Eisenberg’s Collected Stories is no different. Plowing through this one would be a mistake, though. Each story contains a novel’s worth of material, which, as with any great short story, must be savored.
Sometimes large story collections try to summarize a still-working writer’s career, presenting a false sense of closure. Thankfully that doesn’t have to be the case. Trevor’s big orange book appeared in 1992. Since then he has written four more. The less prolific Eisenberg has four collections under her belt. She once said it was not uncommon for her to spend an entire year on a single story. We hope she produces at least a few more books, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy this superb showcase of her work so far.
Eisenberg’s Collected Stories can introduce readers to a writer they might have missed or overlooked, if only because her brilliance is a quiet one. Two criticisms often hurled at her stories are easily dismissed: that her female characters are too passive and that her narratives suffer from a lack of plot. For Eisenberg, plot is internal; language is action. The Collected Stories offer Eisenberg fans a chance to read everything she has produced thus far. You can hunt down Transactions in a Foreign Currency or Under the 82nd Airborne and spend more money, or you can buy this one book and have everything comfortably in one place. Her stories unfold in unexpected ways. “Flotsam” contains a beginning whose casualness would be dismissed in a workshop: “The other evening, I was having a drink with a friend…” Nothing about the friend or the drink appears in the main narrative, and only at the end do we realize the purpose of the anecdote. Eisenberg’s characters often experience the uncomfortable feeling of the world slipping beyond their control. In “The Flaw in the Design,” she writes, “Looking at a painting takes a certain composure, a certain resolve, but when you really do look at one it can be like a door swinging open, a sensation, however brief, of vaulting freedom.” Good writers remind us that the closer we look at something the more interesting and complex it becomes. Eisenberg explodes the familiar with such skill that we soon worry what else we might have missed.
You can reread Eisenberg’s stories and discover something new every time. She successfully navigates the minds of young female characters, presenting realistic teens whose sophistication is often undercut or tempered by humor: “I arranged it with Maureen that I would say I was staying at her house. ‘Don’t wear underwear,’ Maureen told me. ‘That really turns guys on.’” Eisenberg’s minor characters are always complete. In the brilliant “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris,” we hear a narrator too wise for her own good, seeing too much of the world’s harshness: “I could feel my blood traveling in its slow loop, carrying a heavy proudness through every part of my body. I had known Chris could injure me, and I had never cared how much he could injure me, but it had never occurred to me until this moment that I could do anything to him.” Her later stories tend toward a more communal voice. In “Twilight of the Super Heroes,” Eisenberg succeeds where many other writers have failed: rendering the 9/11 attacks into art without sentimentality or falsehood. Eisenberg takes big risks with her political themes. Yet they never overshadow the story or preach to readers. Instead, politics and national tragedy serve as tense background: “When the smoke lifted, all kinds of other events, which had been prepared behind a curtain, too, were revealed.” Somehow she pulls it off. For those writing short stories, and for anyone who has come to admire and respect this most challenging of forms, Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories is a cause for celebration.