Female Trouble

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg BY Deborah Eisenberg. Picador. Paperback, 992 pages. $22.

The cover of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

For the past quarter century or so, Deborah Eisenberg has been writing such perfect, satisfying, yet un-expectedly disturbing short stories that you would have had to be out of your mind to ask her for a novel. It’s been quite clear from the work she has already given us that she’s capable of saying everything that needs to be said in discrete units of six thousand words or less. And yet it now turns out that when you put all four of her story collections into a single chronologically ordered volume, something emerges that, while not quite a novel, has certain novelistic qualities—including, among other things, an overarching plot and personalities that develop over time.

The plot, as I see it, goes something like this: A young woman who has trouble with her family, with men, with earning a living, with questions of power and authority—in short, who has trouble with life—finally succeeds in getting herself out of an impossible situation and into a merely unpleasant one. This happens over and over again, but she does not seem to learn from the experience. She is a neurotic, isolated figure, yet her neuroses do not annoy us: On the contrary, they afford her the opportunity to make comical and sometimes startling observations about what we would otherwise consider ordinary existence. Here, for instance, is the depressive narrator of “Days,” a woman who has recently quit smoking and is so derailed by the effort that she can no longer figure out who she is:

I feel that I am a zoologist trying to discover the natural environment of an unknown animal found in a pet store. I wish this were the task of someone else, but the biological setup of our planet requires a rather strict one-to-one relationship between each corporeal entity and the consciousness with which it is accustomed to associate, and it seems I am stuck.

Actually, the technique of Eisenberg’s stories belies this amusing truism to a certain extent, for the changing narrative voice allows us to flit from one mind to another, from the consciousness of a suburban teenager to that of a back-to-the-land runaway, say, or a dried-up society beauty. Still, on some level these women all resemble one another, in that they all have the same problem: They cannot get outside themselves and their restrictive habits, their limiting fears, their hopeless, helpless desires.

And then this novelistic character—let’s call her “she”—takes a trip beyond the borders of the United States. This happens rather tentatively, almost experimentally, in the title story of Eisenberg’s first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), where the aimless twenty-something heroine travels to Canada to meet her inconstant lover and ends up finding something that is less comforting, if perhaps more useful, to her than love. And then it really happens, irretrievably, in the concluding story of that first book. “Broken Glass” takes a recently bereaved midwesterner on a journey to Central America and, as the title suggests, forever alters the window, or the mirror, that frames her view of the world. What opens her eyes in this new place is not just the landscape or the poverty or the intensity of the local culture—though all these have their effects—but the discrepancy she witnesses between the Americans who have supposedly settled there and their environment. She has become the zoologist in the pet store again, but this time the species she is observing is only tangentially hers. The colonial shortcomings and despairs of these rich-by-comparison expats, these fragments of the American diaspora, may help to illuminate her own situation, but their crises are not the same as hers. A kind of distance from the self and its relentless needs has, at long last, been achieved.

And then, in the next three volumes, our heroine undergoes numerous transformations. Sometimes she is poor and sometimes she is wealthy. She might be married with kids or she might be a solitary figure who endures with difficulty the company of others. Once or twice she splits herself into two narrative perspectives. Several times she becomes a man. And overall there is a progression—not toward wisdom, not even toward old age, but toward a more jaundiced, more urban, more sardonic perspective.

Occasionally she is a drug addict, or an unemployed wastrel, or someone judged clinically insane, and these viewpoints allow Eisenberg to show us “normal” life as if from the outside: They have, that is, the same function that traveling to a foreign country does. “How pleased they were with themselves—with all their things, with all their accomplishments,” thinks the drug-addicted protagonist of “Rosie Gets a Soul” after encountering a particularly despicable group of high achievers.

Those people had treated their lives so well, tending them and worshipping them and using them (however moronically), and she had just tossed hers into the freezer, like some old chunk of something you didn’t exactly know what to do with. . . . On one side of the chasm was the house with the architect and the restaurateur and their wives, and Rosie’s school friends, and the others in her office, and stadiums full of people, and the students traveling in packs through Europe—all the people in the world, in fact, studying and working and playing sports and having colds and running errands and doing whatever it is humans do. And on the other was Rosie, sitting in her little bathroom, cleaning her syringe.

Outsiders like Rosie and her kind are Eisenberg’s way of looking at what you might, distressingly, call our kind—journalists and photographers and musicians and architects and gallery owners and other artsy professionals—through a long, well-focused spyglass that finds all the cracks and flaws in a life.

So it turns out that even when the later stories do not explicitly involve travel (and many of them do not), the narratives have nonetheless benefited from that breakthrough moment at the end of the first volume. The wider world is there even when it is unmentioned, and the characters who suffer their typically American, typically upper-middle-class fates now seem to do so for a reason. Which is not to say there is a moral to these tales, or even anything so clodhopping as a message. Just when you finally think you know where you are in an Eisenberg story, the ground gets ripped out from under you.

This is true of all my favorites: “A Cautionary Tale” from Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), “The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor” and “Someone to Talk To” from All Around Atlantis (1997), and the title story from Twilight of the Superheroes (2006). You arrive at what you think is the central point—for instance, the sentence “Then again, how far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?” in “Twilight of the Superheroes,” a story that circles around the events of 9/11—and at first you feel enlightened by that knowledge, and then you discover that knowing things really does you no good at all. Most Deborah Eisenberg stories end not with the dying fall that was so common in late-twentieth-century short fiction or with the steel-trap closure that prevailed earlier in the century, but with something more like disintegration or even pulverization. Information that has been hidden is finally brought forth and a state of awareness is temporarily achieved, but that in itself doesn’t seem to affect the course of events. Disaster either lurks or flees, and life goes on either way, but nothing has been solved or resolved.

At its best, though, this lack of resolution can itself feel like resolution. This is certainly true of “Some Other, Better Otto,” which I think may be my favorite piece in the entire Collected Stories. I have been reading and rereading this story for three or four years now—probably about twice a year—and it still works its magic on me every time. I laugh aloud whenever Otto is cruelly funny (“Oh, it was like trying to pick a fight with a dog toy!” he thinks despairingly about his kind, agreeable, long-suffering lover), I am moved and fascinated when he visits with his schizophrenic sister, Sharon, and tears come to my eyes when he is persuaded, at the end, simply to come up to bed. Otto grows out of other witty, surly men in earlier stories—the hapless Stuart in “A Cautionary Tale,” the depressed, failing Shapiro in “Someone to Talk To”—but he is older and sharper than they are, further along with his life in every sense of the phrase, less passive in the face of events, more authoritative. And yet he is no happier. A solid job, a good relationship, a lovely apartment: None of these props have brought him happiness. But that is not the point. He has something—not better than happiness, because it would sound smug to say that, and Eisenberg is never smug—but other than happiness, and it is worth a great deal, to him and to us.

Wendy Lesser is the editor of The Threepenny Review.