Youth and the Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle: Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth

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I began this all wrong, so the paragraph you’re reading now is actually a total do-over. Or maybe not “total” – if you swallow certain theories of the universe, a completed draft of that aborted essay exists somewhere in an alternate reality, one which follows the course of my errant lede. As far as I can tell, though, that’s still only a theory. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect that this misstep should transpire in an examination of Laura van den Berg’s second collection of short fiction, as the seven narratives in The Isle of Youth turn again and again at the point-zero restart, obsessed with roads-not-taken and changes so drastic that reality itself seems to skip to a new dimension. Perhaps it seems a little too perfect, but to read The Isle of Youth is to witness how every fresh start only brings a new set of complications.

Can this possibly be my life? Any of the six words in that sentence can hold the stress, and facing some intersection of the preposterous and the mundane, the female narrators in van den Berg’s debut collection (What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us) consistently grappled with their own spin on the question. Can THIS possibly be…? An actress settles in a detour town with a stunted career and a terminal boyfriend; an art history student drops out of college to raise her troubled little brother after their parents are killed abroad; a botanist joins a lengthy research mission in Scotland to flee a crumbling relationship. While these women confronted the quotidian fuss of a life they never foresaw, van den Berg played with a counter-level of the unfathomable, situating unseen creatures on the fringe of each narrative: Bigfoot, the mapinguari, the Loch Ness Monster; all these believe-it-or-not haunts proving a minor threat compared to the demands of just getting by.

Before the close of that first book, the procession of tangential monsters threatened to lapse into shtick, and in The Isle of Youth van den Berg forces her characters to stand down life’s bafflements with little more than their own wits, prevarications, and sleight of hand. Without a “Missing Link” to further destabilize reality, in this new batch of stories van den Berg achieves the same dramatic weight by utilizing The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

“By the time you see there’s a decision to be made,” short story master Deborah Eisenberg once wrote, “you can be pretty sure it’s a decision you’ve already made.” Originally I’d decided to use that quote as the opening sentence of this essay, but then I changed my mind after the subsequent paragraphs trailed off into an understory of Eisenberg’s gracefully canted prose, with The Isle of Youth nowhere in sight. What once appeared an ideal opening line now serves as a practical pivot point, clearing the way to set forth how – across three decades of short fiction – Eisenberg has found a way to channel narrative momentum less by plodding points and more by harnessing waves, jarring reality out of focus and gaining force by sharpening it once again.

Cobbled out of all four collections of Eisenberg’s stories, from Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) to Twilight of the Superheroes, (2006) The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle incorporates derivations of The Many Worlds Theory (where all the possible outcomes of each decision and action exist in split copies of reality); the observer-effect (named for the guy who suggested that certainty was impossible since the tools for measurement inevitably impact the object being measured); and Viktor Shklovsky’s formalist principle of ostranenie, or “enstrangement” (wherein an artist recasts the common in a way that allows it to be appreciated anew – such as slipping an innocuous “n” into the word “estrangement” and voilà).

“We really don’t know to what degree time is linear, and under what circumstances,” suggests a mathematical genius in Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto.” “Is it actually, in fact, manifold? Or pleated? Is it frilly?”

Sure, that same genius was also prone to psychic breaks severe enough to require hospitalization, but that’s just the author being mischievous. Even in her earlier work,  from the story of a teen girl who realizes she quibbled away a typical day while unaware her mother was dead to the narrative of a middling concert pianist who wakes in a foreign city after his wife has left him, Eisenberg has constructed her work around overlaps of time, with characters knocked for a loop by the “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality about life that makes one so very nervous.”

The mysteries of time and space don’t resolve with age, observation, or relative sanity; in the post-9/11 title story of Twilight of the Superheroes, a widowed Manhattanite reflects on the “eternal, poignant weariness of youth” while his own sensory grasp of reality often betrays him: “During his waking hours, the food on his plate would abruptly lose its taste, the painting he was studying would bleach off the canvas, the friend he was talking to would turn into a stranger.”

Shklovsky’s oft-repeated quote is that estrangement serves “to make the stone stony,” and Eisenberg makes life lively through that formalist technique of defamiliarization, exploding moments where her characters see their lives in shards of bizarre impossibility, leading her fictions to crystalize at counter-epiphanies – rather than light bulb flashes of enlightenment or moral truth, readers are able to observe how direction takes shape from a blinding overwhelm.

“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,” says the narrator of Eisenberg’s “Days,” a woman who needs to develop entirely new concepts of time and identity after she quits smoking. “It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves.”

Should anyone in The Isle of Youth loose captive birds from their palm, don’t believe your eyes. Prestidigitators, performers, twins…amid stories of wit and misdirection van den Berg follows in Eisenberg’s suit, equally fascinated with capitulations and recapitulations, simulacra, and the suddenness of disorder. And when all else fails, van den Berg’s characters resort to the layperson’s application of The Many Worlds theory: the good old-fashioned whopper.

“Talking to someone who didn’t know me, who couldn’t separate the truth from the lie, always gave me the most ruthless sense of freedom,” says the narrator of “Acrobat.” That unbound freedom equates to a form of coherent superposition, the theoretical condition of existing in all possible states at once. Imagine two complete strangers who have yet to meet or speak – between them, a limitless world of possibility exists. Superposition, however, immediately collapses on contact: truth or lie, consequences unfold and the infinite gives way.

Distracted by a trio of Parisian street performers, the fib-prone narrator of “Acrobat” fails to hear a rather crucial bit of information about why her husband has decided to leave her right then and there. Among the next available steps, she chooses one of the least likely, following the acrobats from the Jardin de Tuileries to the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower, stopping at cafés and bistros for cigarettes and meals before finally joining the trio at a house party jammed with costumed contortionists and buskers. Though thoroughly disorienting, “Acrobat” applies The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle to avoid pure randomness, with the narrator moving forward in time while trying to recapture a missed point. With a billion swirling atoms of possibility and just that one fixed coordinate, a story takes shape as van den Berg brings the unexpected into brilliant focus.

Often the best measure of a presence is the quality of its absence, and “Lessons” is the lone story in The Isle of Youth where van den Berg abandons The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle, tipping her hand with foreshadowing and narrative ineluctability: a teenage survivalist drags her little brother along to serve as the lookout while she and her cousins pull a series of small-time stickup jobs. Inexorable forces + cute kid in peril = no room to breathe. Leaving a little wiggle room for the reader avoids manipulation, but in “Lessons” the kid’s name is Pinky and he just wants to build a robot and however many outcomes exist, you can be certain that none bode well.

Throughout the rest of The Isle of Youth, van den Berg’s protagonists continue to ask can this possibly be my life, with only the thread of family ties binding them to a prior state of being. Without ever dipping into fabulism or the surreal, the twin-swapping title story and the deceptively profound “Opa-Locka” challenge perceived reality; in the latter, sisters at loose ends decide to start their own detective agency, but as the mismatched duo puzzle out the disappearances of a client’s husband and their own long-gone father, the misguided energy of their surveillance skews the picture:

“I did feel partly responsible for whatever it was that had happened to her husband,” says the more sensible sister, “as though our mere presence had set something in motion that might have remained dormant otherwise.”

“Opa-Locka” begins amid the familiar tropes of a stakeout, but from the sisters’ flawed investigation van den Berg tells an entirely different story, one of secrets, risk, loss, and “two little girls who tried to make something out of nothing.” Such is the legerdemain of The Isle of Youth – which itself is both an ideal of new beginnings and also some shabby tourist trap off the coast of Cuba. There are few tidy resolutions between these alternate versions, though that shouldn’t come as any surprise: one of basic tenets of The Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that things don’t get any easier, they only get different.