Deborah Eisenberg spent the summer of 1963 at a school for labour organisers and civil rights activists in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. She was 17. ‘It was a proudly Klan county,’ she told an interviewer, ‘and we all ended up briefly in jail.’ On her return to Chicago, she was surprised to find that nobody believed her stories of racist cops and police harassment. Two decades later, she and her husband, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, visited Central America ‘to see what our country was supporting there’. They sought out journalists and human rights activists and made return trips. On their second visit to El Salvador, they encountered Methodist missionaries delivering medical supplies: ‘They said to us: Why did you come back? You know this situation – you don’t have anything more to learn here. And we said: It’s just easier, it’s more comfortable to be here than to try to live with this in New York or even discuss it at a dinner party there. And they said: That’s why we’re here, too.’
The disjuncture between American reality – particularly the Manhattan dinner party circuit of careerists and bohemians – and the atrocities America commits abroad has featured in Eisenberg’s short stories since her second collection, Under the 82nd Airborne (1992). The title story turns on the innocence of Caitlin, an American actress visiting her daughter in Honduras. She meets a man from the US embassy who speaks in the glib voice of imperialism: ‘We’re not just here because we go all gooey inside when we think about the relationship between free enterprise and democracy!’ She drives around the countryside in a jeep with a friend of her daughter’s fiancé, who speaks in the cynical voice of the gringo freelancer: journalists and photographers, he says, ‘sit around the pool here, Panama City, San Salvador, Managua, get all weepy about how they sat around the pool in Saigon, Ventiane, Phnom Penh, Bangkok. Hey, now they get to do it all again.’ She sees ‘shacks, made from what looked to Caitlin like garbage – cardboard, plastic, scraps of wood’, soldiers carrying automatic rifles and on television men in parachutes gliding into the jungle. She gets sick from eating a piece of candy she got on the street. ‘I hate this place,’ she concludes.
The political turn in Eisenberg’s work occurred early – but it wasn’t inevitable. Most of the stories in her first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), deal with the mundanities of Manhattan life: awkward apartment shares, doctor’s appointments, broken dates, dull jobs, unreturned phone calls, painfully broken tobacco habits and parties that everybody seems to be attending reluctantly. It’s only in the last story in Transactions, ‘Broken Glass’, that Eisenberg sends one of her narrators south, to an unnamed tourist town in Latin America, where she spends time with an older American couple who throw wild parties and speak condescendingly of the natives: ‘I love these people … But they breed like … like I don’t know whats.’ The story ends with an epiphany of sorts as the narrator knocks on the couple’s door, the morning after one of their soirées: ‘I was shocked to see how old they were in this morning light, and seedy in their old robes, like people just come from a hospital … I saw on their faces the record, which was changing right in front of me, of countless challenges met and usually lost.’ Call it a world-historical hangover.
Both ‘Under the 82nd Airborne’ and ‘Broken Glass’ stage eye-openings – the dawning of political consciousness for more or less blinkered Americans. The events of 11 September 2001 effectively fused Eisenberg’s two main themes: the parochial lives of New Yorkers and the ghastly things being done on their dime and in their name far, far away. The disjuncture could now be located in a zone with a radius of only a few blocks. The title story of her third collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (2006), takes up the experience of the attacks and their aftermath from the perspectives of Lucien, a well-connected gallerist, and his nephew Nathaniel, a Midwestern son of Holocaust survivors, who arrived in New York at the turn of the millennium. For Lucien, the city is full of ghosts: he’s regularly visited by the spectre of his late wife, Charlie. It’s out of obligation to her that he looks out for Nathaniel, lining him up with a job for the subway system’s architecture department and a sublet in a downtown loft. The story is framed by the imminent return of the loft’s owner, a Japanese businessman called Mr Matsumoto, who left the city after the recession in 2000 and is returning now that the climate is ‘back to normal’.
The question for Nathaniel and Lucien is what ‘normal’ ever meant. The loft’s veranda and its views are constant reminders for Nathaniel that his New York existence is not the average one. He gives up drawing Passivityman, an anti-corporate ‘comic strip that ran in free papers all over parts of the Midwest’. But he is still young, with plenty of time to ‘regroup’ as he thinks about finding a new place to live. Lucien is the story’s central focus and many of its passages are transcriptions of his thoughts. He is of the same generation as Eisenberg, the idealistic and narcissistic baby boomers:
A deep embarrassment has been stalking him. Every time he lets his guard down these days, there it is. Because it’s become clear: he and even the most dissolute among his friends have glided through their lives on the assumption that the sheer fact of their existence has in some way made the world a better place. As deranged as it sounds now, a better place. Not a leafy bower, maybe, but still, a somewhat better place – more tolerant, more amenable to the wonderful adventures of the human mind and the human body, more capable of outrage against injustice …
For shame! One has been shocked, all one’s life, to learn of the blind eye turned to children covered with bruises and welts, the blind eye turned to the men who came at night for the neighbours. And yet … And yet one has clung to the belief that the sun shining inside one’s head is evidence of sunshine everywhere.
Not everywhere, of course. Obviously, at every moment something terrible is being done to someone somewhere – one can’t really know about each instance of it!
Then again, how far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?
To Lucien, the recovering city comes to seem like ‘a school play about war profiteering’ or ‘a propaganda movie’. And the propaganda seems to have done its job, though Lucien, preoccupied with Bush’s wars, stops throwing glamorous parties at his gallery.
Things have changed a bit since Eisenberg wrote about the consequences of 9/11. Public outrage about the abuses of American power is pervasive but it’s mostly directed inward, at detention camps by the border, homicides committed by police and widespread mass shootings. When it comes to Yemen or Palestine or turmoil churning south of the border, there’s less of a furore. Eisenberg isn’t a rapid response fiction writer, and the political threads in the six stories in her new collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, reflect her perennial concerns rather than indignations specific to the Trump era, though the president does furnish an epigraph to the book’s longest and trickiest story, ‘Merge’. The other comes from Noam Chomsky and is not to do with politics but with the origins of human language.
Like ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’, ‘Merge’ sets the experiences of an ageing New Yorker in counterpoint to the lives of young people just starting out. As in the earlier story, the older character’s troubles have a ring of reality while the young seem to exist on the edge of a fairy tale. Cordis is a bit of a ‘loon’ who is less than computer-literate. Celeste is a young neighbour who helps Cordis out by walking her dog, opening her mail and fetching her dry cleaning. When Celeste leaves the country for a job as a humanitarian aid worker, she offloads her duties onto Keith, a beau she recently met on the street. He is the feckless son of the CEO of a firm notorious for poisoning the water of Malaysia. Kicked out of his father’s house for forging a $10,000 cheque, Keith is without a permanent home or a job. He starts receiving cryptic postcards in the mail from Celeste.
It turns out she is retracing the path of Cordis’s husband, Ernst Friedlander, who disappeared twenty years earlier on a quest to discover the origins of language. A sort of crank Chomsky, he called language ‘the tool that doesn’t work’, believing it to be the root, or at least a fertiliser, of human evil: ‘An extremely plastic faculty, amenable to many uses, but it developed to serve the pressing demands of malice, vengefulness and greed – humanity’s most consistent attributes, providing individuals with the means, through lies, boasts, propaganda, fear-mongering, advertising, derision, and outright threats, to subjugate others.’ (This bit does sound like a comment aimed at Trump, whose primitively phrased epigraph goes: ‘I know words. I have the best words.’) Celeste’s journey will take her back in time (though whether she has really travelled into the past or is experiencing a sickbed hallucination is unclear) to a council of primates – among them, chimps, bonobos, ‘mild-mannered Neanderthals’ and one particularly violent human.
For all its pessimism about human nature, the story is whimsical and its three character portraits affectionate to a fault. Second-hand accounts of Keith’s father make him out to be the sort of villain who doesn’t typically turn up in an Eisenberg story: characters who execute injustice, if they appear at all, tend to be deluded cogs – like the man from the embassy in ‘Under the 82nd Airborne’ – or fictions within fiction, like Captain Corporation, Passivityman’s arch-nemesis. The conceptual material about language isn’t very sophisticated and the view of non-verbal primates as serene and peaceful is naive. But Friedlander’s theory must be an ironic gesture on Eisenberg’s part since words are, after all, her medium – not just of art, but also of sympathy and of ethical reasoning. The differing fates of Celeste (the idealist who vanishes and goes mad – her last card is a scrawl that simply reads ‘FIRE’) and Keith (who crawls back into the tainted good graces of his family) suggest that life is easier for those who go on living with the curtain pulled over reality’s harsher truths. Where does this leave language? Cordis, thinking about Ernst, has the last word: ‘It was never possible to know whether he was really serious. And certainly, if she didn’t have words to use, how could she have borne his absence?’
Another story, ‘The Third Tower’, approaches the concept of language in a more bluntly allegorical way. Therese is a teenager from a provincial town sent to a clinic in the city because she’s been suffering from ‘spells’. Her diagnosis suggests that her problem is thinking and talking too much: ‘Mental “crowding” or “smearing”, excess liquidity of intellection. Fainting occasional but rare. Complaint suggests aberrant cortical activity.’ The prescribed remedy is ‘repetition modification in conjunction with indicated elaboration-suppressants’. We are in a dystopia where language itself – by enabling imagistic thinking and metaphor – has become pathologised. Her therapy consists of word association games where the correct response is identical to the original word. She sets off alarm bells by responding to ‘tree’ with ‘piano’ (something made of wood, after all). There are a few good jokes – corporate branding is mentioned as a possible occupation for people with Therese’s ‘hyper-associative’ disorder – but the story is slight. The confined clinical setting, meant to deprive Therese of sensory stimulation, drains Eisenberg’s fiction of its usual observational precision.
Two of the stories in Your Duck Is My Duck function as a pair, both occasioned by distant family deaths: a nephew becomes obsessed with a dead uncle he never knew in ‘Recalculating’; the obituary of a cousin ignites the narrator’s memories of the rivalry between her mother and her paternal aunts in ‘Cross Off and Move On’. The former relays the experience of an outsider suddenly privy to a new world, a feeling that throws him into a cosmic-religious reverie. The latter returns its narrator, a teenage runaway now in middle age, to the claustrophobic days of her youth and the scoldings of her frustrated mother, who checks coats at a nightclub cloakroom in the hope of sending her daughter to college. The narrator describes a photograph of her mother taken before she married the man who would eventually abandon her and the daughter who would leave her too:
In this photo a heap of shining ringlets somewhat obscures the shape of the girl’s head, but there are the distinctive, long, shiny-lidded eyes, their pale, nearly transparent disks of irises plausibly green though represented in black and white, with tiny, shocking dots at their centres. The expression, too, is well-known to me, though the girl’s suggests a mischievous rather than a malevolent irony.
It is hard to believe, but there is evidence – always building to the same, ringing summation: a lack of advantages ate the lovely girl alive and emitted in her place someone shaped like a melting pyramid, on which is balanced a head – as wide and oval as my aunts’ heads are long and oval – adorned with little frilly ears and topped now with a careful display of durable-looking, reddish curls, someone whose feet must sit in a basin.
Prose of beauty and precision discloses a bitter sort of knowledge. Here the adult daughter reimagines her mother through the eyes of her child self and tries to comprehend the woman who tormented her but who also bought her pastries and made her laugh by imitating the silly men she met at the club. Sometimes the disjuncture begins at home.
The most satisfying piece in Your Duck Is My Duck is the title story. It begins at one of those parties that everybody is attending reluctantly. A rich couple, Ray and Christa, inform the unnamed narrator that they’ve bought one of her paintings and invite her to stay and work at their Caribbean island retreat. It’s an offer too good to refuse, even though the narrator isn’t very fond of her hosts and doubts they’re genuinely fond of her. From here, the story becomes a delicious blend of subplots. There’s the narrator’s unresolved feelings for her ex, whom she emails while under the influence of sleeping pills. There’s the crisis in her hosts’ marriage: Ray has been having an affair with a famous model also living on the island, ‘that loony, anorexic bitch’, as Christa calls her. The island itself is in the midst of climate disaster. Years of flood and then drought had wiped out its staple crops, after Ray bought up much of its farmland and planted eucalyptus. These plants, being highly flammable, were later devastated by lightning storms. Now the islanders are fleeing. The situation is explained to the narrator by Amos Voinovich, a world-class puppeteer also staying in Ray and Christa’s island compound. He’s working on a new show about a serf rebellion that backfires and puts a corporate junta into power. ‘Same old, same old,’ Amos says of his plot. ‘Never loses its sparkle, unfortunately.’
The story’s undercurrent is the uneasy relationship between artists and their plutocrat patrons. Amos and the narrator see the damage their hosts are doing to the environment and bear witness to it in their work – both his show and her paintings depict the flaming eucalyptus groves – but they still accept their hospitality. Amos’s small act of dissent is to deny his hosts his company at dinner times. ‘The onus is on us, obviously,’ Amos says. ‘To entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer? … Which is why I hardly ever put in an appearance … it’s been interpreted as a sign of genius.’ The story resolves into comic melodrama with the wealthy insulated from tragedy by their money and the artists carrying on with their work. The islanders, of course, don’t fare so well. The last of their huts are wrecked by mudslides. The disjuncture remains. Back in Manhattan, the narrator says: ‘I rarely go to parties any longer.’