Stories of Catastrophe, Domestic and Otherwise

Last year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a fellowship to Deborah Eisenberg in recognition of a body of work as a short-story writer that spans three decades.  The fellowship is commonly and rather crudely known as a “Genius Award.”  But we should always be pleased when a writer whose name may not appear on the best-seller lists is certified as a genius.

The credential is less important than the work itself, of course, and that’s why the publication of “The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg” (Picador: $22.00, 992 pps.) can be seen as an honor, too.  Here is a single volume that contains all of the stories from Eisenberg’s last four collections, ranging from “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (1986) to “Twilight of the Superheroes” (2006), nearly a thousand pages of prose.

“Deborah Eisenberg has built an estimable reputation by marginalizing herself even within the precincts of literary fiction,” wrote critic Jonathan Dee, “by disregarding – more out of idiosyncrasy than rebellion – whatever it was that writers of her time and place were supposed or expected to do.”

So we might hope that “The Collected Stories,” no less than the “Genius Award,” will take Eisenberg out of the margins.

Her short stories are crafted and polished, but they are also fully alive with the kind of observed detail, both physical and psychological, that catches and holds our interest.  The first sentence of the first story in the collection, “Flotsam,” is a good example: “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.”  It’s a moment of intentional misdirection, but it’s a line that compels us to keep reading.

“Flotsam,” like many of the other stories in the collection, is about the lives of contemporary urban-dwellers and how they struggle (and often fail) to connect with each other. Eisenberg is less interested in plot-lines than in the rituals of social intercourse, and conversation among the characters is often the engine of her story-telling.

“It took me long enough to find you, you know,” complains a mother to her adult daughter in “Under the 82nd Airborne.”  “You didn’t even tell me you’d moved.” To which the daughter promptly replies: “Did someone just dump you, Mama?  Is that it?”

The words that men and women utter to each other are weapons rather than a way to communicate.  “[E]verybody has something, some little thing, my darling, they’ve been waiting so long to tell you,” says a reporter in “Someone to Talk To,” but it turns out that he is congenitally (and comically) unable to complete an interview with a touring pianist named Aaron Shapiro.  And we’ve already witnessed how Shapiro himself cannot seem to reach his partner, Caroline, with mere words: “Was that his voice?” he muses about his own awkward and hurtful efforts. “Were those his words?  He could hardly believe it himself. Those stiff words, like stiff little soldiers, stiff with shame at the atrocities they were committing.”

Some of her more recent stories are edgier if only because Eisenberg finds herself forced to acknowledge the horrors of the here and now.  In “Twilight of the Superheroes,” for example, the Y2K panic is already entering the realm of myth in the mind of a young artist named Nathaniel, creator “Passivityman,” which she describes as “a comic strip that was doted on by whole dozens, the fact was, of stoned undergrads.”

“Might one be fatally trapped in an elevator?” he muses, thinking ahead to the stories that he will tell his yet-to-be born grandchildren. “Would we have to huddle together for warmth and scrabble frantically through our pockets for a pack of fancy restaurant matches so we could set our stacks of old New York Reviews ablaze?”

No such stories will be available to Nathaniel, but he was not wrong to imagine an apocalyptic incident at the opening of the third millennium. Eisenberg conjures up “that shining, calm, perfectly blue September morning [when] something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.”  Characteristically, the horror first manifests itself as “the annoying racket of a low-flying plane” that disturbs the ritual of morning coffee on the terrace of an elegant high-rise apartment.  But even Eisenberg, who otherwise so cool and so aloof, seems to be shattered.

“Oh that day!” she writes. “One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real – the intended – future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day not to have happened. But it had happened.  And now it was always going to have happened.”

Such moments of high drama are rare in “The Collected Stories.”  More often, she focuses on catastrophes that consist of aborted love affairs, stalled careers, estranged families, marriages that crash and burn.  But all of the stories are written with the sure hand, the clear vision and the refined sensibilities of an American master.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, blogs at