Reality Squared: A Profile of Deborah Eisenberg

May 5, 2010 | 16 9 min read

EisenbergDeborah_credit_Diana_MichenerBy most external measures, Deborah Eisenberg has been on a roll lately. There are the rarefied reviews that greeted 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes (“masterful”; “masterly”; “wise, careful, benevolent“). There’s the 2009 MacArthur “Genius” Grant. And, just this month, there’s the publication of a 950-plus page omnibus that – like a camera pulling back from a single edifice to reveal the skyline’s sweep – lays bare the scope of what she’s been up to these last 30 years.

If Eisenberg’s Collected Stories tell us anything, though, it’s that external measures are the least interesting kind, and, reached by phone at her New York apartment, she expresses a kind of shambolic bemusement at her achievements, as though they might just as easily have accrued to some other fiction writer who shares her name. “I’m terribly inarticulate,” she apologizes at one point. “Glacially slow,” is how she describes her process at another.

cover Actually, she’s frightfully quick. In conversation as on the page, she moves fluidly from the telling detail to the big idea and back again. Metaphors emerge at thoughtful intervals, like amuse-bouche at a casually brilliant restaurant. But it would be a mistake to write off Eisenberg’s eloquent disavowal of her own eloquence as mere good manners. Rather, it is emblematic of the antinomies that animate her long short stories: articulate muzziness, ironic passion, controlled chaos. Together, they comprise an ethos we might call active passivity – a kind of curiosity about the things that simply seem to happen to one. That is, against the aura of willful exertion that usually clings to the word “master,” The Collected Stories arise from their maker’s patient attunement to the accidents of character and of art.

For Eisenberg, the first accident was to be raised in Winnetka, Illinois, a predominantly Gentile suburb 20 miles north of Chicago. Some of the Eisenhower-era temperament of the place can be glimpsed in her Reagen-era short story “The Robbery.” Though there were “some deeply, deeply liberal people there,” she says now, “It was very conservative in certain ways,” and sharply divided from the Jewish enclaves it abutted. She was not conscious of the “anti-Semitic element” until after she left, but had a sense of being different from an early age. Outwardly a “very nice girl,” she felt inwardly “like a complete Martian.”

This is in some measure the fate of all sensitive and intelligent children, existing as they do in a world controlled by somewhat less sensitive and intelligent adults. (Eisenberg would soon be plucked from her public school and packed off to a boarding academy in Vermont.) But her sense of unbelonging had a political dimension that soon made itself felt. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she managed to get herself thrown in jail as part of a group working on a project “in a KKK county somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. . . . I can’t take credit for it,” she insists (a high-school friend had invited her along) but “It was probably the thing I’m most proud of in my whole life.” It was what happened afterward, however, that would make the biggest impression on her art. She returned north to find the adult world eager to chalk the injustices she’d witnessed up to adolescent hyperbole. “It was an eye-opening experience: the experience of being told you didn’t see what you saw.”

The ultimate remedy for this estrangement lay in the city, which had always seemed “very glamorous and beautiful” to Eisenberg – a glamor more powerful for being forbidden. “‘Lock your door, Jill'” says the mother in “The Robbery,” as she drives her daughter in

to one of the stately old department stores, or to a matinee when the ballet came to town . . . and at that moment the earth seemed to become transparent, and they would drive toward its center, penetrating worlds and then worlds. When they reemerged on the surface, which was settled on a human scale with houses and shrubs and newly covered driveways, her mother would draw in her breath deeply, and the road would heal up behind them and become opaque. But later the hidden day would emit around Jill the troubling light of a dream.

After a stint at Marlboro College and a period of hitchhiking around the country with a boyfriend, Eisenberg ended up in New York. She was rudderless, directionless, “confused and desperate,” she remembers, “in the condition of a beached whale. . . . I was always confused in those days.” New York did not end that confusion so much as provide a hospitable setting for it, as it would for so many of Eisenberg’s characters. “My expectations were not of a glittering life of any sort, but I loved the metropolitan tolerance, the metropolitan disorder, the feeling of something continually being generated, even if it was anarchic, and quite scary.” She was comforted, too, by the anonymity the city offered. “It was like crawling into a great rumpled bed,” she says approvingly. “A bed in which there are already people.”

coverOne of those people was the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, whose life had been running on a parallel track. Having grown up even more fully ensconced in the fruits of postwar prosperity – Putney; Harvard; father the editor of The New Yorker – Shawn had grown concomitantly more uneasy about the provenance of those fruits (as he describes in his recent book, Essays). When he and Eisenberg began seeing each other, it was not only a meeting of the minds – “the wonderful writer with whom I live,” is how she refers to him these days – but also the opening, albeit obscure, of a vocational path.

The first story she wrote was a diary-like thing called “Days,” whose precipitating incident was the protagonist’s decision to quit smoking. “My only autobiographical story,” Eisenberg calls it. Though she began it many years after she herself had given up cigarettes, she was, like her protagonist, “falling apart” at the time of composition. “I was in terrible shape,” she recalls, “like a heap of shredded paper on the floor. [Shawn] gave me a pen and paper and said, well you have nothing to lose.” The result is, in its brilliant images, absurdist wit, and sensitivity to the slightest shifts in the inner life of its protagonist, like Svevo‘s Confessions of Zeno in miniature. And one senses, between the lines, a writer discovering her own powers. Late in the story, the narrator suggests that

It is amazing to be able to find out what I want to do at any given moment, out of what seems to be nothing, out of not knowing at all. It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves.

Another critical intervention – or happy accident, depending on one’s orientation – came in the person of Joe Papp, renowned founder and director of New York’s Public Theater. After a friend of Eisenberg’s had directed a staged reading of “Days” at the Public, Papp asked her to write something for the theater. At first, she declined, but when he offered money, she set to work on her first and only play, Pastorale. Eisenberg’s ear for dialogue, soon to be celebrated, was at that point an unknown quantity, even to herself; “Days” had contained relatively few lines of direct speech. But she felt “weirdly confident” in Pastorale, and even though Papp “ended up hating it,” she might not have become a professional writer had he not first mistaken her for one.

A series of first-person stories followed, which, somewhat to their author’s surprise, would become the collection Transactions in a Foreign Currency. As in “Days,” the form of the dramatic monologue offered Eisenberg intimate, moment-by-moment access to the surprises and disappointments of her characters. She had a sense that she was cheating, somehow, by making all of her protagonists an “I,” but feared that the linguistic plasticity that interested her wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And then one day, she says, she decided that it would. She began writing her first third-person stories, which would appear in her breakout collection, Under the 82nd Airborne. “It had taken me all these years to figure it out,” she says. “The stories had taken shape under water, sort of.”

In the shift from first- to third-person, she had discovered a voice to match her sensibility: a voice struggling toward objective fidelity to subjectivity of lived life. It is the sound of a mind talking to itself, replete with hesitations, gaps, interjections (of course), and adverbs, which Eisenberg wields more expertly than any writer since Henry James. Expressionism and realism reveal themselves as aspects of a single phenomenon. Here, for example, is the waitress Patty, in “A Cautionary Tale,” climbing into the lap of one of her customers, a transvestite dancer named Ginger (in this scene wearing theatrical wings).

Ginger brushed his cheek against Patty’s lashes, and when she opened her eyes again the eyes that gleamed back were feral and slanting. “Little flower mouth,” he said, and Patty’s mouth opened, too, as he arched, letting her glide it from his jeweled earlobe down his polished neck and along the sweep of his collarbone, but there was a quick explosion in her brain as “Waitress! Waitress!” someone called, and Patty scrambled trembling to her feet, scraping her shoulder against papier-mâché.

coverThe other (related) innovation of Under the 82nd Airborne was its explicit engagement with the political. Its title story is set in Honduras, which the Reagan Administration had been using to facilitate not-so-covert aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Another story, “Holy Week” – and three in the collection that followed, All Around Atlantis – would take place in Central American landscapes scarred by three-plus decades of antidemocratic U.S. interventions. These stories arose, Eisenberg says, from her travels in the region with Shawn, which began around the time of the Iran-Contra scandal and continued through the end of the go-go ’80s. Shawn, she says

was very interested to see Nicaragua, to see a socialist revolution. Of course, I didn’t know a socialist from a socialite. But I wanted to see Guatemala. You know…lakes, volcanoes. Wallace asked did I know what I was talking about, and suggested I do some reading. I said I’d do it when I got back.

Then again, Eisenberg was not exactly disinterested in the subject of justice. She admits,

I did start to read about U.S. policy in the region and then wanted very much to go to Honduras. . . . The whole thing was so shattering, that to come back to the unreality that New York was was simply intolerable for a while, so we kept going back and back.

coverTogether, Under the 82nd Airborne and All Around Atlantis work to suggest a context for the lives of privilege and disorder depicted in Eisenberg’s earlier fiction. As she puts it, “Guatemala provided a way to understand what was going on in my own country, which is corporatocracy.” It was a short jump from seeing U.S. military power propping up banana republics abroad to the sense of pervasive but intangible powers at home – a real world behind the unreal world, or vice versa. “Well, actually,” Eisenberg corrects herself, “there are two sets of real worlds and two sets of unreal worlds. . . . There’s the actual real-real, which is always in flux,” and there’s “the real world in the sense of the structures that form the world we live in.” And then, she says, confidence growing, there’s “the very unreal world that we in the U.S. live in, the parochial world of what used to be the middle class and is the educated elite now that the middle class doesn’t exist anymore.” And finally there’s the subjunctive unreality – the personal realm of desire and wish and dream – we move through daily. This layering of worlds and the attempt to negotiate it would persist in Twilight of the Superheroes, set against the backdrop of September 11 and the War on Terror.

Of course ideas – especially political ideas, and especially one’s own – pose certain risks for fiction. It is a peculiarity of Eisenberg’s writing (Norman Rush may be her only peer in this) that it manages to adumbrate “the structures of the world we live in” without ever telling us what to do. A key strategy is irony, and particularly a willingness to concede that right-minded characters are often wrong and wrong-minded characters right. Take “A Cautionary Tale,” for example: about which Eisenberg says, “I amused myself partly by instilling attitudes that are mine” not in Patty, the heroine, but in an “absolutely intolerable,” fire-breathing liberal named Stuart. Or take “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” from 2003, whose main character, Lulu, combines glimmerings of historical awareness with utter interpersonal ineptitude. In The Collected Stories, as in the actual-real-real, people rarely manage to keep their personal and political lives consistent.

Indeed, Eisenberg points out, fiction liberates one from the burdens of consistency.

I think one of the great things about fiction is that you don’t have to adhere to a formal idea about building a case. The responsibility is almost to go beyond the confines of any case you could build. And people do talk about things, of course. They don’t just talk about nail polish. You can go for days thinking, “All anybody cares about anymore is square footage,” and then have three extraordinary conversations in the grocery store.

It helps, she says, that her own ideas “aren’t even complete. Always, they’re being shaped by reality.” That’s actual real reality, of course, which may help to explain why the last decade (which saw “reality-based community” become an epithet) so unsettled Eisenberg’s characters. “This is a very interesting moment to be alive,” she says, “and that is the only thing that makes it bearable.”

As for what comes next, she has “absolutely no idea. I really want to move along . . . I really do. But I’m sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears.” Of course, she has felt glacially slow and terribly inarticulate in writing her first 27 stories. “But one wants to say, oh, when I complained then, I wasn’t really serious. Now I’m serious. I have to reconfigure my brain somehow. . . . It hasn’t quite reconfigured itself yet.”

This last emendation – from the active voice to the reflexive – has come to seem like a classic Eisenberg move. It’s as if a too-proprietary stance toward her own mind might endanger the flow of perceptions that shape her art. As if knowing might get in the way of seeing, and feeling. But one has every confidence that eventually active passivity, or passive activity, will win out – that her brain will have been reconfigured. And if, for all her perceptiveness, Deborah Eisenberg can’t quite see what she’s accomplished in all these years of hurling herself against pieces of paper – “I myself don’t see any particular thing in this collection,” she confesses – perhaps she doesn’t need to. The actual, real reality is there, between the covers of The Collected Stories, waiting for prepared spirits to receive it.

(Photo © Diana Michener)

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is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.