KR Reviews

On Your Duck is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg

New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 226 pages. $26.99.

The appeal of the long short story—the short story that “could be a novel” if only it would grow up and start taking itself seriously—is its evasion of novelistic complacency. While a novelist may feel the obligation to, say, dramatize certain Important Scenes (important from the vantage point of plot) or provide a backstory for each major character, a writer like Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg simply burns away whatever feels inessential, dutiful, flabby, or journalistic. We sink into novels; we live with them, perhaps cozily, for weeks. A story keeps you uneasy and off-kilter, and maybe no short story writer (other than Mavis Gallant) keeps you more on your toes than Deborah Eisenberg.

Your Duck is My Duck, her first collection of new work in twelve years, is comprised of six long stories that contain many trademark Eisenbergian obsessions: decline and mortality (both of the self and the American empire), narratorial squinting at opaque Old World family histories, overpowering mothers and the daughters who live in their shadows. What is perhaps most intensified this go-around is her concern with the possibilities and limitations of language itself. In her narration, Eisenberg has always pressed against the limits of the expressible, trying to convey what it feels like to be this person in this moment—not how the character will repackage the moment later as narrative, but what it feels like for someone with little capacity for received structures to stand in the midst of sensory and informational bombardment. At the same time, she has also acidly observed how her characters—through their dialogue—use language to obfuscate, to deceive, or to pretend that what’s happening in front of them isn’t really happening.

In the new collection, the novella-length “Merge” attacks head-on a question that has run beneath the surface of Eisenberg’s oeuvre: Is language humanity’s greatest gift or its greatest weapon? The story follows Keith, the amiable scion of a loathsome plutocrat, as he falls into the orbit of Celeste, a young human rights worker, and Cordis, the eccentric widow of Ernst Friedlander, a potentially-crackpot linguist who disappeared two decades prior while attempting to excavate the birthplace of human language. Friedlander’s theories—namely that “language developed as a way for us to deceive ourselves into believing we understand things, so that we can just go ahead and do stuff that’s more ruthless than what any other animal does”—shroud the entire story, which enacts the dilemma of facing or not facing a world of hideous inequalities and environmental decimation. For Celeste, this dilemma takes the form of a hallucinatory pilgrimage toward the site of Friedlander’s disappearance; having been exposed, via her work in Slovakia, to unimaginable human suffering, the thought of returning to her first-world global superpower home seems unconscionable. Keith, on the other hand, spends the story tiptoeing up to the brink of the awareness that flattens Celeste. After forging a ten-thousand dollar check from his father, he finds himself abruptly divested of much of his “trashy, low-grade pixie dust of undeserved advantages.” He must toil as a personal assistant to Cordis and in other physically-taxing menial jobs; he must go without a phone or computer in order to avoid apprehension by his father’s goons.

Keith, though infuriatingly adept at rationalizing his laziness and entitlement, has enough sensitivity to be affected by this off-the-grid interlude. He feels himself assailed by “the bare, sharp vividness” of the unmediated, corporeal world. He maybe falls in love with the dour and unprepossessing Celeste. He begins to wonder who he might be behind the “aggregation of qualities he’d had little hand in making or choosing.” But Eisenberg characters never go through neat or pleasing epiphanies, and by story’s end the tether of privilege has yoked Keith back into his familiar position, in a high-rise above New York, an incipient master of the dying planet.

In a 2009 interview with Tin House, Eisenberg described her childhood awareness that she’d “been born inalterably on the winning side of certain relationships.” The ingrained absoluteness of privilege is one of her greatest, bleakest themes. In the title story of Your Duck is My Duck, a midcareer painter is invited by a glamorously wealthy couple, Ray and Christa, to their paradisal Latin-American getaway, where the painter can ostensibly relax, recuperate, and get work done. (“You’ll be inspired, everyone who visits is inspired.”) For Ray and Christa, whose opportunistic stabs at agriculture have incinerated the local ecology and economy, artists are charming pets to exhibit to their fellow uber-capitalists. What, the story asks, is the artist’s relationship to this kind of patronage? And what can our puny artworks do to counteract the malign intractable leech-like sway of our corporate overlords?

“Your Duck is My Duck” is, among other things, a stunning auto-critique—a laying-bare of the inefficacy and impotence of the kind of politically-engaged art of which the story itself is an example. The story concludes with the performance of State of Emergency (aka The Hand That Feeds You), an avant-garde puppet opera by another of Ray and Christa’s residents. Though the piece is an unsubtle evisceration of Ray and Christa and all they represent, the performance—which Eisenberg renders in both parodic and lyrical terms—leaves its wealthy audience bored, indifferent, and just as powerful as they were before. As she does in “Merge,” Eisenberg here balances a sardonic critique of her protagonists with a bone-deep awareness of just how much she, and many of her readers, shares with these passive spectators to global evil. (As she memorably asked in the title story of Twilight of the Superheroes: “How far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?”)

It is a mark of the collection’s political anger that the stories dealing with loss and mortality function almost as relief valves. In particular, the final story, “Recalculating,” feels like a benediction to the reader, with a warmer and more porous tone than anything that has come before it. Again, there is a callow young man (Adam) encountering an older woman (Vivian). The context is the funeral for an uncle Adam never met, a mostly-gay man who was also the love of Vivian’s life. Adam physically resembles his uncle, and what transpires between him and Vivian occurs on multiple levels: an acting-out of grief, an erotic wish-fulfillment, a subtle exchange of wisdom across generations. Vivian is a former dancer, and midway through “Recalculating” Eisenberg performs a pirouette—simultaneously shifting POV and moving decades into the past—that is one of the most graceful and astonishing moves I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

Like all of her greatest work, this story feels like it’s improvising its own structure, making an unexpected yet necessary digression into the first meeting between Vivian and Phillip, Adam’s uncle, opening itself up to encompass Vivian’s thoughts on aging and time. “Still, there was always the feeling that one would get around to being young again,” she reflects, and that is exactly what this story captures: bewilderment at the passage of time, the grave dawning awareness that life is finite.

One of the miracles of a Deborah Eisenberg story is the unusually acute sense that the story is being incarnated as you’re reading it, a remarkable present-tense quality that comes from how synced up she is with her characters’ consciousness. “Recalculating” leaps and spins, backward and forward, and makes meaning through the flickering, impalpable quality of felt experience it conveys. It is the kind of idiosyncratic art that (as Eisenberg dramatizes in “Your Duck is My Duck”) will always be marginalized and imperiled. Yet it can also make you feel more alive, more acutely aware of time, the time we have left.

Mark Labowskie is a Jones Lecturer in the creative writing program at Stanford University, where he was previously a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, and Sou'wester.