Reading Deborah Eisenberg’s short fiction is like waking up with jet lag in a new place: Everything is familiar, but also off-kilter in some jagged, inexplicable way. Her seventh book, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” showcases her inimitable voice and captures our current national mood with eerie precision.
It feels like an oversimplification to call the MacArthur award-winning writer political, because her stories rarely mention a particular war or president, and indeed seem to happen in some liminal, invented space and time zone all her own. Yet Eisenberg has always been engaged with the question of how Americans parse their identities, as titles of past collections (“Transactions in a Foreign Country,” “Under the 82nd Airborne”) make clear. Her characters tend to despair as they watch from the sidelines of history, like the New Yorker in her story “Twilight of the Superheroes,” who witnesses the horrors of 9/11 from his penthouse sublet.
In the title story, which won an O. Henry Award, an artist with painter’s block is invited to stay at a rich couple’s ritzy vacation compound, in an unnamed, impoverished country. The unfaithful husband’s adventure in gentleman farming has caused a cascade of environmental disasters that have blighted the landscape and threatened the denizens’ survival. Eisenberg thrusts the reader right into her characters’ fraught, layered relationships.
Amid all the fisticuffs, the narrator frets about her future with her maybe-ex-boyfriend in Barcelona. “Barcelona hasn’t really worked out,” he emails her, “so it’s time to move on, I guess. Europe is really expensive. . . . But Africa is mostly in turmoil, and so is Latin America. Australia? What would be the point?” Home addresses and relationships are often temporary, or on hiatus, while the characters sort through their fog of ambivalence. As one character muses, “People always say, ‘Oh, things might not be great here, but it’s stable, the problems are ordinary.’ You know. And the next thing you know, laws are gutted, the economy comes crashing down, people are in the streets, it’s all the fault of the ones with beards or the ones without beards, or whoever.’ ”
The six stories in this collection run quite long and feature big casts of caustic, urbane characters, often replaying their pasts with regret and puzzlement. Eisenberg likes to plunge the unmoored reader right into their dizzying dialogue. In “Taj Mahal,” actors meet in a New York restaurant to bemoan a recently published tell-all memoir about the famous director, now dead, with whom they all worked. Like “Your Duck Is My Duck,” the story is as much about how we talk about our lives as the actual events — how we construct the stories we tell about our awful childhoods, our neglectful parents. In Eisenberg stories, people rarely see each other as they are. As one woman says about her estranged husband, “I fiercely wanted him to come by, but only if he was going to be a slightly different person, a person with whom I would be a different person — a pleasant, benign, even-tempered person.”
More than in some past work, Eisenberg focuses here on the indignities of aging. In “Recalculating,” at the London funeral of an uncle whom he barely knew, a young man meets the deceased famous architect’s friends and lovers, and tries to make sense of their byzantine entanglements. In “Cross Off and Move On,” it’s a famous violinist who has died. His cousin, the narrator, was always fascinated by his family’s close bond — no wonder, given that her own nasty mother can be snide and dismissive even about Holocaust survivors.
Eisenberg’s signature concerns collide precisely in the haunting “Merge.” A recent college graduate, cut off from his allowance when his rich father catches him forging a check, now works as a “personal assistant” for an old woman, while his girlfriend is off in Slovakia, doing humanitarian work. The old woman seems to be entering some stage of dementia as she obsesses about her late husband, who, not coincidentally, studied the origins of human language. Language itself is also a concern in “The Third Tower,” in which a young orphan is sent away to get help with her mysterious, malfunctioning “word-stabilization reflex” — say the word “tree” to her in an association test, and she’s likely to shoot back “piano.”
The same sense of from-left-field surprise animates all of the stories in “Your Duck Is My Duck.” You never quite know where Eisenberg is going, or how she’s going to get there. The destination is less the pleasure than the dead-on observations along the way. Here’s a typical Eisenbergian sentence, about tourists in a New York restaurant: “All around them people are knocking back various brunch-type cocktails with a tentative, hopeful abandon, as if emulating native ritual.” Practically every line in this superb collection is that accurate, disarming and quotable.
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She is a professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden.
By Deborah Eisenberg. 240 pp. $26.99.