In the closing pages of Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, a woman describes her afternoon in a museum:
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. It’s as if, for a moment, you were a different person, with different eyes and different capacities and a different history—a sensation, really, that’s a lot like hope.
Much the same could be said of the collection’s twenty-seven stories, which are long and knotty, and yield their transfiguring riches only to the diligent. It has become commonplace for critics tackling this richness to describe it by reference to novels: the stories are "novelistic in all but…length," "as full of life and of lives lived as a novel" and "as unafraid of digression as most novels." Eisenberg herself has called her creations "vertical novels."
The reflex is understandable. Consider her 1997 story "All Around Atlantis": the narrator, a fiftysomething named Anna, has just attended the funeral of someone named Lili, where she saw but did not speak to a man named Peter, first identified only as the author of a book about someone named Sándor. And away we go, pirouetting forty years into a past where Anna, Lili and Sándor shared a small apartment, with Peter as an ever-present guest. No sooner is the scene set than Eisenberg shoots decades forward, into Anna’s marriage and its failure, to a visit to her son in Los Angeles, then back to Lili’s funeral. At the same time, back in that small apartment, young Anna is trying to conjure up images of the Holocaust in Hungary. She, Lili and Sándor escaped it—she’s figured that much out—and she and Peter are too young to have witnessed it. But what exactly was it? The same Holocaust she’s learning about in school?
The details of these characters’ intertwined relationships become clear only by implication—even the fact that Lili is Anna’s mother is not obvious for several pages. Rather than pausing to spell out the basics, Eisenberg lets them emerge as nodes on a crisscrossed, decades-blurring network of Anna’s memories and imaginings. The invocation of "novelism" to describe this approach, though obviously meant to compliment Eisenberg’s scope and economy, is misleading. Novels support their length with a certain sort of architecture—with footholds, landings and rest stops that allow the reading experience to be spread out across a few sittings. In this sense they are the opposite of poems, which rarely tolerate even a bathroom break. On this spectrum, Eisenberg’s stories sit closer to poems. Reading "All Around Atlantis" requires holding several strands of silk in the mind’s eye simultaneously, each being spun at a different speed and to a different thickness, some tangled together. Put the story aside to answer the phone and Anna’s not-yet-complete web of associations—her experience—collapses beyond repair. Novelistic? Not at all. It’s a short story on a high wire: it displays and demands an intense faith in the form’s decidedly non-novelistic potential.