The Political Eisenberg
The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
(Picador Paperback Original, 2010)
Deborah Eisenberg’s stories spin taut, glistening webs between people and places that resonate at mesmerizing frequencies; they come as close to what can only be called reality as literature, at its best, can do. This, I feel, is how life really is; this is how people think and speak and interact, how things follow upon one another, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
The experience of reading the 980-page Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, published earlier this year, which brings together four of her previous collections—Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Under the 82nd Airborne, All Around Atlantis, and Twilight of the Superheroes—into a single volume, is matched only by reading these exquisite stories a second time.
Something that struck me early on was that Eisenberg often endows her characters with a political naivety bordering on ignorance. Upon closer examination, however, a strategy emerges: unquestioned notions of privilege, entitlement, safety, and stability become porous and crumble before our very eyes as Eisenberg presents us with an America on the cusp of losing its faith in itself, its defining optimism. Conveyed as though through a sleight of hand, her analysis of the national psyche as it confronts the inevitable loss of its global hegemony is unique in literature today and thus merits a treatment all its own.
In The Flaw in the Design, young Oliver has grown up in parts of the developing world; the family’s successive sojourns in Nigeria, Burma, and Ecuador have each lasted only a few years, and the parents have taken pains to shield the boy from local influence. His father, who seems to work for the American government, has “certainly done well enough financially. Many people had done very well.” Oliver’s mother, who fails to grasp the mark these experiences have left on her son’s soul, recalls their sheltered life of embassy parties and well-tended homes screened off from the dire realities of wherever they happened to be:
John would sometimes describe to me his vision of the burgeoning world—lush mineral fields that lie beneath the surface of the earth and the plenitude they could generate, great arteries of oil that could be made to flow to every part of the planet … A degree of upheaval was inevitable, but one had to keep firmly in mind the long-term benefits.
But then came “insinuations in the press and rumors,” and things invariably grew too dangerous for them to stay. As they leave, something is smoking on the horizon:
There was a low black billowing in the sky to one side of us, fire in the distance, whether it was just brush or something more—crops or a village or an oil field, I really don’t know.
And so they move back to the States for good, and while everything seems fine at first, the groundwork has been laid. In Eisenberg’s stories, something unspoken always seems to resonate between the lines, to lurk just beyond the next sentence, like the nameless monster that Oliver envisages: “Don’t you hear the giant footfalls, the marauder coming, cracking the earth, shaking the roots of the giant trees? What can we do, Ma? We can’t hide.”
As Oliver begins college, the mother fails to understand how his obsessive loathing of hypocrisy and duplicity—and the fact that he has grown up to discover unmistakable evidence of these very attributes in his own father—has undermined any sense of trust or optimism his privileged upbringing was designed to provide. In a sense, what Eisenberg presents to us is the raw moral disposition of a disorientated American youth: the anguish over a ruined and plundered world and the deep sense of implication in this mammoth crime. “Every breath I take is a theft.”
For his part, Oliver’s father is convinced that his son is ill; he regards his despondency, his “fastidiousness, his severity,” as evidence that something is fundamentally wrong with the boy. He wants him to see a psychiatrist, to be medicated back to normal. And so the issue at stake becomes the definition of sanity itself, of who retains jurisdiction over the right to identify, classify, analyze, and judge collective human activity in a largely dysfunctional and insane world.
Even Oliver’s loving mother remains largely oblivious to the source of her son’s agony; her tenderness and indulgence remain mired in the platitudinous sentiments they spring from. In an internal monologue that recalls Mrs. Dalloway, the wavering voice of a well-situated woman expresses uncomfortable truths that largely escape the character’s own comprehension. If we want to understand, Eisenberg seems to be telling us, then it is through the lens of denial, error, and misrepresentation that we must first learn to see.
Twilight of the Superheroes, the stunning title piece of the fourth and most recent collection in this volume, hones in on the time immediately preceding and following the September 11th attacks. The story goes far beyond this, however, as it crystallizes into a cogent mise-en-scène of American society at the end of the last millennium.
The “Superheroes”—four young, ambitious friends who gather together to sublet the absent Mr. Matsumoto’s fabulous Manhattan loft that Nathaniel’s benevolent Uncle Lucien has made available to them—exhibit the paramount American attributes of the “Age of Dross” as seen through the eyes of Nathaniel’s comic strip figure “Passivityman”: “a gift for exploiting systemic weaknesses,” “an obtuse, patrician equanimity in the face of damning fact,” and a “spectacular level of aggrievedness.” Over time, these “superhero” features—originally the key to the four friends’ easy success—metamorphose into a Venn diagram of rampant opportunism, unilateral rectitude, and isolationism. For his part, Passivityman—who has previously been “constantly vigilant against the premature conclusion, scrupulously rejecting the vulgar ambition, rigorously deferring judgment and action…and all for the greater good”—seems to have given in to political apathy. “His rallying cry, ‘no way,’ which once rang out over the land…has been altered by Captain Corporation’s co-optophone into, ‘whatever.’” And then came the attacks, which changed everything.
The future ahead of them, it’s now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that had pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain…a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city. The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.
Looking back several years later, Lucien reflects on the time that followed this indelible day, when “flags waved in the brisk air of fear” and the cognitive capacities of the collective American mind seemed to have become deactivated by a force field of self-censorship. Revenge became the unifying emotion:
What should be done, and to whom? Almost any word, even between friends, could ignite a sheet of flame. What were the bombings for? First one imperative was cited and then another; the rationales shifted hastily to cover successive gaps in credibility. Bills were passed containing buried provisions, and loopholes were triumphantly discovered—alarming elasticities or rigidities in this law or that. One was sick of trying to get a solid handle on the stream of pronouncements—it was like endlessly trying to sort little bits of paper into stacks when a powerful fan was on.
Lucien’s European friends send him newspaper clippings, alarmed at the “big science fiction horror movie over there, about the emperor of everything everywhere, for which the whole world was required to buy tickets.” He loses his taste for throwing parties, for having fun; he realizes that he has been living under the mistaken assumption that his little garden plot of privilege has somehow been contributing to the greater good. In Eisenberg’s most scathing attack of all, the motivations behind the wars inflicted upon Iraq and Afghanistan are exposed for what they were:
Hidden behind a thicket of language: patriotism, loyalty, freedom—the words bounced around, changing purpose, as if they were made out of some funny plastic. What did they actually refer to? It seemed that they all might refer to money.
As the lives they only recently and so confidently settled into dissolve around them, the Superheroes struggle to redefine themselves. After he quits his lucrative P.R. job and endures a painful period of repudiating all his former beliefs, Amity accuses Madison of being a “bitter skeptic”; he in turn calls her a “dupe.” Lyle falls in love with a dancer who moves back to London after mistakenly being arrested in a security sweep near Times Square, while Nathaniel foresees that he and his friends will soon be going their separate ways, now that Mr. Matsumoto is moving back to New York to reclaim his loft. Cast upon the rocky waters of a volatile economy, in a superpower stunned by its sudden resemblance to Rome, Amity, Madison, Nathaniel, and Lyle lose their superhero status as they face an uncertain future.
In “Holy Week,” originally published in the collection Under the 82nd Airborne, young Sarah accompanies the first-person narrator Dennis, recently reduced to writing restaurant reviews for a tourism magazine, on a trip to an unspecified South American country. Dennis is soon seized by moments of debilitating fear that congeal into obsessive anxiety over the germs and microbes that are surely contaminating the local food; he grows weak in the knees at the sight of soldiers marching past.
Sarah and I had gotten guide books, of course, before leaving, and I had tried to tell her whatever I knew about the region. Not easy to remember what’s happening where, though. Who we support and why. All those countries! Veritable stew of armies, guerilla groups, death squads, wobbly emerging democracies, etc.
Eisenberg’s characters frequently possess no more than a faulty understanding of current events. She shows Americans as they all too often appear: lacking a basic grasp of political context and without a working knowledge of the cultures and histories of even the countries closest to them. Sarah is fascinated by the native Indians; to Dennis’s nervous consternation, she and their young hotel maid develop a friendly interest in one another. It emerges that María is terrified of her hour-long walk through the coffee plantations each morning to work; guerillas lie in wait at every turn, and young men are abducted regularly. Dennis is anything but sympathetic:
My God. Who were these people?…People who can’t afford a newspaper. People in whose languages no paper will ever be printed, people who couldn’t read one if one were printed in their languages—these people who don’t even know there’s a world out there, it’s these people who could burn the world to the ground.
Sarah’s irritation with Dennis grows. Soon, wherever she turns she sees evidence of oppression and exploitation, and her awakening culminates in a visit to the plantation owners Señor and Señora de León. Owners of the Good Morning! mega-brand of fruits and coffee, they are forced to employ the army to quell potential uprisings; surrounded by fences, guard towers, and helicopter landing strips, their workers live the hopeless lives of prisoners in labor camps. While Sarah slowly digests her horror, an exasperated Dennis attempts to rationalize the distribution of wealth around the globe:
Yes, the lives some people lead are horrifying, but if you accept the idea that it’s better for some people to be fortunate than for no people to be fortunate, then it’s preposterous to make yourself miserable just because you happen to be one of those fortunate people.
Whatever else can be said in praise of Deborah Eisenberg’s work—about the way in which she elevates subjectivity by presenting reality exclusively through a single character’s consciousness, for instance, or the way she eschews narrative resolution in favor of shuffling together seemingly haphazard fragments of people’s lives—Eisenberg arranges sentences into jewel-like structures to express the stark truths of souls grappling with the formlessness of their lives. Rejecting the grand gestures of some of her literary contemporaries, and employing a strategy so subtle that it runs the risk of escaping coarser sensibilities, she chooses instead to chronicle the ways in which larger political realities collide with the individual American conscience—and in this, Deborah Eisenberg remains unparalleled.