Deborah Eisenberg’s stories pull you in and imitate life in an uncanny way.
Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, Ecco, 224 pages, $25.99
By Roberta Silman
Deborah Eisenberg has been known until now as a great short story writer, the recipient of just about every award the American literary community can grant. Starting with both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award, she has also gotten the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and been recognized as a MacArthur Fellow. Your Duck Is My Duck is her fifth collection of stories (her last was in 2006), although I would argue that some of these pieces are more like novellas, or mini-novels. Indeed, it may be that Eisenberg and Alice Munro have expanded the idea of what a short story is, similar to experiments made by Elizabeth Bowen in “Ivy Gripped the Steps” and “Mysterious Kor” and Henry James in “The Beast in the Jungle.” How this happened is anybody’s guess, but after finishing this book, I was reminded of what my editor at The New Yorker said many years ago: “This new thing called the computer is making stories a lot longer because you writers can change things so easily with so little effort.” As someone who remembers wondering if the addition of a preposition was worth retyping a page, I am inclined to think there’s some truth in that.
Eisenberg is an interesting writer, “a great noticer,” and extremely articulate with an exemplary vocabulary and style. These stories pull you in and imitate life in an uncanny way; indeed, as you read, especially the second piece, “Taj Mahal,” you almost feel as if you are in a theater watching a bunch of actor “has-beens” reveal their back stories and thoughts in what seems like a most chaotic lunch, but which turns out to have an inner logic that makes perfect sense. The tale begins in the most innocent way: “I was a difficult little boy, and when my mother’s chronic illnesses made it impossible for her to care for me, she packed me off to her errant father, the filmmaker Anton Pavlak.”
Nothing in that innocent, almost tender sentence can prepare you for the pyrotechnics that follow where the past comes into focus through the device of a luncheon party of people who knew that errant grandfather and are now gathered at lunch to trash the book written by that little boy whose name seems to be Clement Rouse. What is so remarkable about the narrative is how alive these people are and how well Eisenberg knows the lingo of these actors in all their horrible decay, remembering their maybe equally horrible glory, sometimes in their heads, sometimes listening to them reveal themselves in ways they may never have before to the one younger person at the table — Emma — who is there as a kind of omniscient narrator. Towards the end we see Emma thinking:
A silence has fallen over the table. Emma looks at her mother’s friends. Their old age seems provisional, a temporary blurring or slackening of outlines. Here in the dim restaurant they appear to be indistinct embryonic forms, waiting with patience and humility to be issued new roles, new shapes. They all seem to be thinking, considering, dreaming a little, floating halfway between heaven and earth.
Only to be interrupted by a kitschy scene where someone recognizes one of the men, and goes into the “You used to be” schtick that famous people have to cope with. That Eisenberg can do this so easily may be part of her brilliance for some people; for me it never quite works, and when it happens, as it does here, and more often in the “Cross Off and Move On” story, which is a little too reminiscent of the work of Grace Paley, I wish she had resisted the kitsch.
“Your Duck Is My Duck” is a more straightforward piece of writing and reveals Eisenberg’s concerns about the apparently deteriorating world we live in. It is, in a way, her call to arms, that the repulsive people she is writing about cannot have the last word. Although I could feel myself squirming as I read, I also appreciated her ambition, her need to address all these ills of inequity, colonialism, the despoliation of the environment, and the motives of selfishness and neglect with which the rich often lead their privileged lives. The narrator is an artist who finds herself the guest of a very rich couple in their estate in a foreign country, probably Mexico, and title refers to that old Zen tale of the master, the disciple, and the duck trapped in the bottle and how the master exhorts, “It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem.” The lesson here is that the narrator and the famous puppeteer who are being “cultivated” by these awful folk will somehow have the last word through their art. It is what we all hope. But there are some who wouldn’t bet on it.
Before I get to the stories that were most interesting to me, I must confess that “The Third Tower,” first published in Ploughshares, was the least successful of the yarns for me. But “Merge” and “Recalculating” are Eisenberg at her best. “Merge” is the longest piece, is in 18 parts, and has the most contemporary feel, with epigraphs from Noam Chomsky and, of all people, Donald Trump. Its characters are Cordis, an old woman whose dog needs walking, Keith, a young Turk who has forged his rich father’s name on a check, and Celeste, an activist, who has been helping Cordis and suddenly disappears, giving Keith the responsibility of Cordis. A fairly mundane situation, but in Eisenberg’s hands we see people facing not only the present and taking responsibility for their actions, but also figuring out the past and wondering about the future. And in “Recalculating,” my favorite in this book, we have a story that is uniquely American, beginning when Adam, a young boy in the heartland wonders what happened to an uncle named Phillip, who went to London when he was young, and ends when Adam attends that uncle’s funeral. It is told with such delicacy and skill that a whole lifetime and situation are revealed, not only by what is told but also by the spaces between the words. Here is Vivian, Phillip’s sometime lover, observing Adam at the end:
It had been kind of Adam to take time out of his schedule to come over. He was something of a grand presence in his field these days, it seemed, owing to a few seminal studies he had conducted concerning the environmental impact of different sorts of energy. He himself had spoken tonight, and she had been surprised by the flood of affection of this unassuming young man. Well, he was hardly young, either, of course—he was well into middle age, but he seemed like a shy younger relative, whom she was meeting for the first time since his childhood. And when he stood to make his brief remarks she was warmed by something like pride.
So, here is a writer whom I admire very much. But, in the end, as most of you know who have been reading these reviews, I prize Nabokov’s beloved “tingles” above all. There are very few tingles in this collection. Moreover, there were times when I was acutely uncomfortable, and I found myself wishing for more from this very talented writer. I also found myself remembering that unforgettable sentence in Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay in Seduction and Betrayal about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. “I was immensely moved by this novel when I read it recently and yet I cannot think of anything to say about it except that it is wonderful . . . .You can merely say over and over that it is very good, very beautiful, that when you were reading it you were happy.”
Is it too much to wish that we might be a little happier while reading contemporary fiction?
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is available on Amazon. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.