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.
Eisenberg started publishing in the mid-1980s, when she was 38 and working as a waitress in New York. Her earliest stories, collected in Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), feature female narrators who define themselves through unhappy attachments: to men they follow around the country (to Canada, even) at a moment’s notice; to reliably mercurial, effortlessly hip roommates they both worship and despise; to Manhattan social life. These women are keen observers of the world and its foibles but keener chroniclers of their own flaws. They know exactly what sort of trouble they’re bound up in, and they generally watch themselves stay bound up in it. They find the way that people talk to be foolish—which only encourages them to agonize over their own every utterance. "Everything looks so good," one of them says at a bakery counter, then thinks to herself, "Surely that was an appropriate thing to say—surely people said that."
Though markedly less complex than "All Around Atlantis," the best of these early stories are equally driven by an interest in our tendencies to descend into ourselves—our private histories, imagined counterlives and possible futures—with the greatest of ease, and at the slightest provocation. Here is the beginning of "Flotsam," Eisenberg’s first published story:
The other evening, I was having a drink with a friend when the sight of two women at the next table caused me to stop speaking in midsentence. Both of the women were very young, and fashionable to an almost painful degree. They were drinking beer straight from the bottle, and they radiated a self-conscious, helpless daring, as if they had been made to enter some baffling contest and all eyes were upon them.
"Earth to Charlotte," my friend said. "Everything all right?"
"Fine," I said, and it was, but for a moment that seemed endless I had been pulled down into a forgotten period of my life when I, too, had strained to adhere to the slippery requirements of distant authorities.
I had just come to New York then….
Eisenberg doesn’t return to "the other evening" of the first sentence. But from the start there are, in effect, two protagonists. There’s young Charlotte, freshly transplanted to the East Village from upstate. And there’s older Charlotte, pulled spontaneously into her past. Older Charlotte never sullies young Charlotte’s perspective with wisdom-imbued interjections. But we feel her watching young Charlotte with us, and her compulsion to finger the contours of days past.
This sort of architecture helped to distinguish Eisenberg’s stories early from the fixation on petite epiphany that has dominated American short fiction since at least the 1970s. Her young protagonists, almost always tracked in first or close third person, often seek to right their woes with bold gestures or sudden decisions: leave the guy, move out, get on a bus to somewhere, anywhere. And Eisenberg’s linguistic attention to the whip and whorl of thought lets us share in the rush such gestures always bring. When, in the middle of an argument with her frustratingly beautiful roommate, Charlotte decides to move out, grabs her suitcase from the shelf and leaps astride it—"my legs trembling and my heart racing with a dark exaltation, as if I’d just, in the grace of an instant, been thrown wide of some mortal danger"—we bask in her righteousness. Take that, roommates, New York, life, world! But when the rush fades, the silent presence of the older Charlotte remains, reminding us of what so many well-crafted short stories overlook: in the wake of our little epiphanies, life keeps piling up, unsolved and unsolvable.
Much of Eisenberg’s development in the past two decades can be attributed to her willingness to keep tabs on this piling-up process—to maintain her interest in our narratives of self even as they grow longer and more ensnarled with those of others. Often this means letting the ghost narrators—the older Charlottes—become fuller characters, letting "the other evening" of "Flotsam," which is a quick take, unfold across several pages or multiple passages. Piling up allows the rhythms of thought from different stages of life to intermingle and for all involved to be surprised at how similar they sound. It’s only a short tumble from late youth’s "How the hell did I end up here—wherever I am?" to thirtysomething’s "Am I really still here—wherever this is?" But for the older characters, dramatic gestures and changes seem less possible and less productive. In "A Cautionary Tale," the opening story of Eisenberg’s second collection, Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), it is not the protagonist but her roommate who one evening packs his suitcase and heads out the door, destination unknown. "After Stuart closed the door behind him it was very quiet. And then it kept on being very quiet."
Other things pile up besides years, romances, foreclosed possibilities and regrets. At a certain point, successfully dissecting small patches of experience requires more than a sense for mental life’s basic unruliness—for the mechanics of doubt, memory, hope and the myriad ways they color one another. It also demands an awareness of how that unruliness is informed—fueled, catered to—by the wider world. For Eisenberg this has meant developing increasingly sharp eyes and ears for culture and its linguistic conventions, politics and its euphemisms, money and its uses. Since this attention has always been motivated by her interest in private experience, she has never approached the maximalism of Thomas Pynchon or anything like the headline-skimming tendencies of Martin Amis. Instead, Eisenberg has gradually become something rarer and more interesting: a fluent observer of contemporary culture with a deep, almost political, interest in interiority.
Her first explicit step in this direction came in 1985. She had visited Nicaragua in the early 1980s "to see where our tax dollars were going," and she later took similar trips to Honduras and Guatemala. In December 1985, The New Yorker published "Broken Glass," at that point her longest story, and the first of an eventual six stories set in Latin America. Most of them, "Broken Glass" included, share a conceit: an American visits a country (often unnamed) as a means of "getting away," then quickly becomes overwhelmed by impressions of injustice and his or her sense of collusion in same. At times, this is quite effective. In "Under the 82nd Airborne," for example, the protagonist Caitlin’s gradual awareness that something large and terrible is happening in Honduras—and that American money, American guns and American profiteers are involved—somehow dovetails perfectly with her sense of helplessness regarding her stalled acting career, her nonrelationship with her daughter and her long-failed marriage. The calamity in Honduras is not held in poetic parallel to Caitlin’s own; rather, Eisenberg presents an utterly convincing account of how wildly disparate calamities overlap and jostle for our attention, and how the ever-shifting results of that contest amount to an adult life.
Elsewhere, however, these stories read too much like activism—loud insistences that you, reader, should watch and learn. "Holy Week" takes the form of a travel writer’s notes and articles from a trip down south with a girlfriend twenty-odd years his junior. He’s a parody of the weathered cynic, she of a budding naïf. Soldiers troop by, child soldiers troop by, and he’s writing up a rave review of the mango mousse at El Sombrerito, pausing only to wave off the girlfriend’s anguished outbursts. Of course, people like the travel writer exist. But in "Holy Week" he seems less of a character and more of an argument, if not a poster boy. Just as he has already decided what he thinks, the story lets us know from the start what we should make of him. Instead of being invited to join in connecting the far-flung dots of his experience, the reader is asked only to observe in knowing pity. It’s easy, unrewarding work.
Toward the end of "Mermaids"—a story that appears in Eisenberg’s third collection, All Around Atlantis (1998)—the protagonist, 11-year-old Kyla, sits in a Manhattan hotel room.
The television sat, opaque, in the next room. Dark, Kyla thought, but still seeing––still receiving everything that was happening. You could turn it off, but that only meant that you couldn’t see, behind its darkness, what it was seeing. Sometimes at night, when you had to turn it off to go to sleep, you could feel the world seeping out from the blocked screen—the hot confusion of laughter, the footsteps pounding like a giant, besieged heart, the squealing tires, the eruptions of gunfire, and fearful pictures you couldn’t help staring at before they vanished, and people at desks, smiling as though you’d imagined all the rest of it—rising up on all sides of you, staining the evening with the smells of blood and perfume and metal, staining the helpless moments before sleep, and your dreams, and the tattered edges where you broke through into morning.
The protagonists of Eisenberg’s Latin American stories often experience similar barrages of violent mental images. But here Eisenberg is evoking a different, more common sort of mental seeing—one directly shaped by the way mass culture absorbs and regurgitates the world to snare our attention. This sort of descriptive work, which started appearing in Eisenberg’s stories in the 1990s, foreshadows the eventual unification of what were, until recently, two separate subjects: the vortex of the everyday that confronts her characters at home and the politics-infused vortex skirted by her soul-searching characters abroad. It’s a welcome development: All Around Atlantis alternates schizophrenically between Latin American revelations and several almost-too-crystalline coming-of-age stories. At times, it seems that Eisenberg’s political consciousness is making it impossible for her to write about self-aware adults without sending them to an impoverished foreign country. But the catastrophes of the world exist even if you’re not watching them unfold in person—and, to the extent that Americans ever reckon with them, they do so thanks largely to television.
In Eisenberg’s most recent (and most accomplished) collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (2007), televisions and newspapers breathlessly predict Y2K chaos; notify the country of the day’s color-coded terror alert; rationalize wars in faraway places; relay the government’s plans to weaponize outer space; and eulogize cute children gunned down by a madman. They advertise laundry detergent, show footage of explosions in unnamed countries, hawk ice cream, report on corporate fraud and peddle teenage reality-show comedy. The characters are beset, in the words of a worried mother, by an "onslaught of graphic images that are used to sell things—everywhere the perfect, shining, powerful young bodies, nearly naked, the flashing teeth, the empty, perfect, predatory faces, the threat of sexual ridicule, the specter of sexual inadequacy if you fail to buy the critical brand of plastic wrap or insurance or macaroni and cheese." Eisenberg is keen to illuminate the insidious ways these words and images—advertising and infotainment alike—flit across our mental landscapes, craftily lodging themselves among our loves, fears, attachments, memories, aspirations, conversations and daydreams.
The protagonists of Eisenberg’s most recent stories are as self-aware as ever. Like her early, younger characters, they watch themselves fail to master the world, or even to navigate (let alone tolerate) simple conversations. When they ponder politics, they are mindful that the conversation floating around them masks a world of suffering and its causes, and invites their collusion in the cover-up. But, as they know all too well, this awareness brings neither redemption nor release. Instead, like Eisenberg’s overwhelmed international travelers, they feel themselves walking on a tightrope strung above two equally unappealing options: willful ignorance of the world’s harsher realities, on the one hand; all-consuming absorption in them, on the other.
These being Deborah Eisenberg stories, this particular tightrope is just one strand in a web of adult life. Life keeps piling up. People age; they pair together, split apart, pair together, split apart; their pasts grow and their futures shrink; they start families and yearn to provide them with more stability than they have ever felt; their memories become both more important and fuzzier, and bleed into one another with increasing fluidity. Indeed, several stories in Twilight pay almost no explicit attention to anything that might be called political discourse. But it always feels present anyway, since each story fumbles with some variant of the same question, and each inevitably answers it so incompletely that it builds force throughout the book: Where am I, how did I get here and, knowing what I do about the world, how should I act? How can I possibly feel at home in my own life? This applies both to a woman deciding to abduct her boyfriend’s son and to New Yorkers reckoning with the post-9/11 question of, as one character puts it, "What should be done, and to whom?" The boyfriend problem and the political problem are not in any coherent sense "equal"—this would be the height of American narcissism—but they can and do ineluctably exist in human consciousness with equal force: such is the narcissism inherent in having a life.
No one lands on any answers—not Eisenberg, not her characters. These stories are less about solutions and more about charting the phenomenology of everyday thoughts. If this task sounds slight, it is only because we are not used to acting as if the overlapping tatters of our mental lives are important, or have much consequence beyond our small selves. But we are the same people when we look for jobs, break up with our boyfriends and raise our children as we are when we watch the news, spend our money, elect our leaders and decide which swaths of humanity (if any) to ponder on a given day. Reckoning with this requires art like Eisenberg’s that, by patiently inhabiting our chaotic modes of experience, helps us identify them more clearly—to genuinely possess them, instead of having them simply thrown upon us like half-true news blaring from a television.
The little surprise is that some happiness, or at least grace, seems possible. Not "happy endings"—no endings at all, really—but moments when the contents of our minds are temporarily arranged in acute harmony. Such short moments involve neither blindness to the world nor any sense of long-term difficulty averted, and it isn’t clear why they exist. But reading these stories, it’s hard to deny that they do.