Four of the seven stories in Deborah Eisenberg's collection first appeared in The New Yorker, which is fitting; they are very urbane. indeed, as one character notes about strangers seen in a bar, they are "fashionable to an almost painful degree." Eisenberg is a writer of considerable talent -- she has wit, deftness and grace, and she can cut through her characters' trivial and overlong conversations with an arresting, illuminating metaphor. At her best she seems a zany hybrid, equal parts of Jean Rhys and Dorothy Parker. But thes egifts are displayed in discrete strokes, like the feats of an acrobat. They do not, for the most part, relieve the spell of monotony cast by the voice of enervated sophistication.
The first-person narrators in Transactions in a Foreign Currency are all women, and though their ages and situations vary -- some work, one depends on a man, another has no visible means of support -- they are the same character at heart. They move through life strangely dazed, wedded to an extreme and sometimes comic passivity, and they do not seem to, or choose to, sense their impact on others. "Perhaps," one speculates, "I was invisible in the strong light." Or, as another is portrayed by a roommate: "You just like to make people think you're completely pathetic, . . . so you don't really have to pay attention to anybody, You're like one of those things that hang upside down from trees pretending to be dead so no one will shoot it!" At which the heroine thinks, "Good heavens, yes."
The best story appears last, "Broken Glass," rich and memorable perhaps because its protagonist possesses more than vague unhappy ailenation and hyper-self-awareness. She has a history. Thirty-four years old and solitary, she travels, after her mother's death, to a nameless Latin American village "because of its unfamiliarity to my imagination," although she knows that her mother will be "as dead here, now, as she had been in Chicago this morning." From years of caring for her sick mother she seems numb and blank, the impressionable innocent set loose -- a time-honored fictional device, finely employed here. She is intrigued by local exotica and by the strata of history still paulable in the village, which ages ago was home to a civilization famed for brutal, bloody rites. She is repelled by the antics and hollow values of the American expatriates, whose rites may not be bloody but are brutal enough intheir way. Eventually she comes to see beneath the surface of each civilization, and instead of remaining aloof from the life around her, knocks at the door of neighbors she has scorned. "Had Sandra and Norman ever been aware of the life they were making for themselves" she wonders. "Probably not. It seemed that one simply ate any fruit at hand, scattering the seeds about carelessly and then years later found oneself walled in by the growth." Through this powerful image, she begins examining the seeds and the growth in her own life.
In another beautiful exception, "What It Was Like, Seeing Chris," a suburban high school sophomore suffering from an unnamed progressive eue ailment becomes infatuated with a man twice her age whom she meets in a bar after each monthly visit to a New York City eye doctor. Frightened that she will lose her vision, distraught that no one explains what the trouble is, she veers more and more obsessively towards Chris, about whom she knows nothing, only that she is enchanted my him and all he touches -- his clothes, his car, his friends, Eisenberg scruplously charts the dynamics of adolescent love and despair; one whises only that she had not carried the art of understatement quite so far. Is the end the girl, Laurel, realizes that she has not been a mere paaive reactor in the quast romance; she has had an effect on Chris as well. She truly exists in the world and mist take account of herself, her actions and her prospects.
These final moments of awareness' psychological epiphanies subtly prepared for in Laruel's case and in "Broken Glass," are all too predictable in the other stories. The narrators have a lesson to learn - usually the same transparent lesson- and they flounder till they learn it. In 'Flotsam", a story with a promising beginning, the heroine must extricate herself from false friends - shallow, harmful people - but more attention and space are devoted to delineating the shallowness than to the emerging vision of alternatives.
Frequently the narrators live in voluntary emotional and sexual bondage to a man who is indifferent to them: any forward motion involves freeing themselves and striking out on their own. However subjectively fascinating, their trajectories are as tedious to a reader as friends who insist on describing every station of their therapeutic process. "Days" uses comic tactics to trace the course of liberation: upon giving up cigarettes, the narrator discovers herself to be "rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen" and must virtually recreate from scratch her identity and her stance in the universe. "I find that often between opening my eyes in the morning and putting on my final piece of clothing, three or four hours will elapse." On deciding to run rather than swim:"Not only is running not cold, but I won't drown if I should stop suddenly." Ten such pages can be hilarious; 30 are overkill.
Deborah Eisenberg's fictional strategy is stated by one of her characters, and is akin to the methods of some contemporary visual artists, dancers, and musicians: "Perhaps what eventually appears to be information always appears at first to be just flotsam, meaningless fragments, until enought flotsam accretes, when one notices it, a construction. There seems something a bit too cool and casual about "when one notices it." Transactrions in a Foreign Currency is far more than 'meaningless fragments,' but it might have been better had more care been paid to the construction than the flotsam. CAPTION: Picture, Deborah Eisenberg, (c) BY DIANA MICHENER