The Big Shorts

Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories BY Deborah Eisenberg. Ecco. Hardcover, 240 pages. $26.

The cover of Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories

In his visionary 1985 essay “Exactitude,” the Italian writer Italo Calvino says, “The literary work is one of these tiny portions in which the existent crystallizes into a shape, acquires a meaning—not fixed, not definitive, not hardened into mineral immobility, but alive, like an organism.” This declaration is just one of the many and various ways that he tries to articulate the relationship between form (finite, distinct, structural, shapely like a crystal) and the infinite (everything in the natural universe that exists and can be imagined), a tension so essential that it could be said to describe all writing, all art. Yet the argument is nuanced, as Calvino demonstrates: Giacomo Leopardi describes the vastness of the sky by the way it pushes against the horizon line; Leonardo da Vinci debates himself on whether words or images best contain and suggest; Calvino seizes on the crystal, organically formed and meticulously structured, to characterize his own work. In these variations on a theme, a code emerges by which to decipher, or at least to discuss, Deborah Eisenberg, whose magnificent short stories have so much integrity of vastness they can almost be “hard” to explain. Which is what one might expect when so much life is packed into such a small form.

Jean Painlevé, Cristaux Liquides (Liquid Crystals), 1978.
Jean Painlevé, Cristaux Liquides (Liquid Crystals), 1978.

Dense, disorienting, disturbing, and sometimes prayer-like, Eisenberg’s stories run roughshod through received ideas of the rules for a “well-made short story.” They are filled with nonsequential scenes, enormous time leaps, slippery perspective, capacious unresolved plots and subplots—no limits. Yet like Calvino’s crystal, they are exquisitely formed. Words refract, themes reflect, illuminations and epiphanies bounce furiously through the segments, bending light in every which way. Eisenberg’s fifth collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, evolves seamlessly from the inspired Twilight of the Superheroes (2006). These new stories—about age and its perspective, legacy and making art, dramatic life changes and how they get absorbed into the continuous—attend to vastness with unparalleled specificity and belong entirely to themselves. “All right,” observes the narrator of “Cross Off and Move On,” my favorite story in the collection:

so you’re walking around in a cloud of facts that are visible only to others. This has become evident to me. Your eyes blink, like a doll’s, you can move your arms and legs, you can even cry or wet yourself, but you weren’t born like a doll in a box, with a little card that says things about you, and if you want to know how it is that you arrived on this planet of ours, you can’t just sit around blinking like a doll.

The child narrator, who wrestles with facts everyone but she can see, has an adult incarnation in this story, too. Though the story is framed as a flashback, none of what happens is background information or foreshadowing— each moment is part of an entire picture. Each instant in time is unfailingly vast, allowing the story to span a complex life and family, dreads, missteps, consequences, and recriminations with compressed and elliptical clarity.

These stories are family sagas writ short, a form Eisenberg may well have invented. The word saga generally brings to mind giant, beach-sandy paperbacks, like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—not short stories, not even long short stories. Stories don’t in principle have the space to unfurl lifetimes, multiple settings, formation and reverberation. Yet Eisenberg’s stories— with their telescoping time lines and surprising associative turns—expand, even in their ellipses. “Hang on,” thinks young Adam in “Recalculating,” as he considers the earth’s revolution, the chance of it spinning off its axis. “Adam clung to some bits of stubble and closed his eyes. Hang on, he thought, as the Earth gained speed and spun recklessly into the night—hang on, hang on, hang on!” Because Adam is young, his imagination is terrifyingly vivid, and life around him will spin out of control. He will find purchase on stubble in unexpected places, like the girl seeking facts in “Cross Off and Move On.” There is so much living and expression these characters (small and large) bring to the page, lest anyone forget the amplitude.

The short-story saga, if we can call it that, is a feat of compression. Its subject, emotion, and artistry have to billow from the page, yet the page must remain simple and neat. These stories extend outward because they are thick with suggestion and ellipses. The opening lines of “Cross Off and Move On”:

Adela, Bernice, and Charna, the youngest— all gone for a long time now, blurred into a flock sailing through memory, their long, thin legs streaming out beneath the fluffy domes of their mangy fur coats, their great beaky noses pointing the way.

They come to mind not so often. They come to mind only as often as does my mother, whose rancor toward them, my father’s sisters, imbued them with a certain luster and has linked them to her permanently in the distant and shadowy arena of my childhood.

In a story largely about a mother-daughter relationship, there is an obfuscating veil, a memory lacuna, and the mystical tableau of the three aunts—who are ultimately not quite the center of the story. They are, rather, the frame around the mother, the perspective that draws new blood from an old subject. This frame is not merely blurry when introduced, but in the process of escaping entirely (“beaky noses pointing the way”): The aunts sail away just as the narrator reaches for them. These two stories are wrought and fraught, unbearably complicated, comprehensive, and sad.

“Taj Mahal,” another saga-story, is easier to explain. It opens with an excerpt from a sappy Hollywood memoir penned by the unexceptional grandson of a great European director, Anton. “In Anton’s house I was exposed to brawls, tears, romances, scenes, and wild reconciliations. It was a tumultuous time for the tightly knit group of friends who served as the instruments to enact on film my grandfather’s dark visions.” The memoir cuts out to reveal the now aged actors named in the book gathered at a restaurant for the express purpose of complaining: “What to do about all this horseshit?” “How abominable this book is—cheaply sentimental, stealthily vicious, meretriciously moralizing— a morbidly false soap opera whose coarse innuendoes and simpering calumnies affect to be loving tribute.”

Emma, the story’s protagonist, is a footnote in the abominable book, the plain daughter of a glamorous actress who was once Anton’s lover and subsequently had a long romance with her leading man. The “highly improbable” and oddly merry reunion (at which Emma is a bit of an outsider, the daughter of a great lady, standing in for the lady herself) gives her the opportunity to hold her memories up, like a story, against the abominable memoir, which only tangentially and inaccurately reflects Emma’s life, and is “all the creepier for that. Not someone just watching—someone’s grimy hands plunged deep into her foundations, rearranging elements.” Emma sorts her feelings about the book version of her life—she “has been oppressed for days by the feeling of someone’s attention trained on her like a sniper’s”—and sorts her memories of her mother. “Emma remembers that look. She remembers it. Over and over, it makes something inside her tear, like the lining of an old, useless coat.” This story feels rambling as it unfolds, but “ramble” would hardly describe the rich comprehensiveness of the portraits of character, scenes, and relationships— far deeper portraits than anything in the absurd memoir. That is in part because the memories, unlike the memoir, are dynamic, fluid, unreliable in their details, indelible in their emotional resonance. Emma fights a version of the past that is over and done with—“The point of the past is that it’s immutable”—even more than she fights a past that’s inadequately represented.

Metafictional structures—such as the representation of reality in a book versus life— knit this collection together. The title story, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” is about an artist who gets caught up in the immoral webbing of her patrons. “Merge” is about the critical failure of codification between two ill-suited people in an unlikely love affair. “The Third Tower,” set in a dystopian future land where people who think too much are sent off for a lobotomizing cure, is literally about language and the way writers receive it:

It’s like a word has the same word inside it, but the one inside’s a lot bigger, and with better colors and more parts. And the inside word is sort of vibrating, jostling around, trying to get out of its wrapper? So there’s sort of a halo. Or a floppy margin.

Eisenberg’s rich linguistic spectrum is on full display in this story, from the virtuosic description of the train ride to the brainwashing clinic, through to the total dulling. It is a reminder of how masterfully she moves between registers: heightened description, emotional flurries, and crisp, cutting clarity. (The vibrating opening landscape seen through the eyes of the hyperimaginative heroine fades to a doctor’s report describing his patient as having a critically substandard “word-stabilization reflex.”) Language is a distinguishing preoccupation of Eisenberg’s prose. She has an almost un-American commitment to vocabulary, nuance, multiple and recurring signifiers. What’s especially magical about Eisenberg’s writing is how primary and yet transparent it is. There’s not a word that could be another—no accidents, idioms, or casual correspondences.

A good short story doesn’t read as if it were written. It reads as if it always existed, and as if its existence were somehow imperative. And yet that imperative only really relates to the container, everything technical and imaginative being brought into perfect order. These stories wrangle the infinite in human experience, which is what makes them that much better than good.

Minna Zallman Proctor is the editor of The Literary Review and the author of Landslide: True Stories (Catapult, 2017).