Reading Deborah Eisenberg’s latest collection of stories, Your Duck Is My Duck, was for me like going to a party hoping to get away as quickly as politeness allowed and at 4am finding myself still engrossed in conversation with the most delightfully absorbing new acquaintance – which is an elaborate way of saying that I loved these stories. Eisenberg is highly regarded in the USA, but her output, if exquisite, is frugal and she is less well known here. Your Duck Is My Duck should change that.
The title story sets the tone of the collection with a reference to a Zen riddle about a duck trapped in a bottle. When a disciple asked his Zen master for help in extracting it, the latter replied, ‘It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem’ (an answer that I have tucked away for my own later use). And yet – and this is typical of Eisenberg’s style – the title inverts the master’s dictum. The story is narrated by an artist, one of whose paintings is acquired by Ray and Christa, a rich and eccentric couple who invite her to the establishment to which they entice artists in need. The narrator’s current need is for sleep. Asked by her doctor to figure out why she is not sleeping, she replies, ‘What’s to figure out? … I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish – me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.’
The narrator initially abjures sleeping pills for fear that they will ‘blunt’ her ‘affect’ and thus mar her work as a painter. Eventually, she accepts some from Christa. These leave her mentally blank about her nocturnal activities, which, it emerges, include writing an email to a former lover. The upbraiding reply arrives apparently out of the blue: ‘Prisoner? The world is large. You’re only a prisoner of your own fears … You obviously expect me to be your solution … Why do you think anybody could be that for you?’
This response exemplifies the various dislocations that emerge, iceberg-like, out of a troubled sea of unconscious motivation and confront Eisenberg’s characters as aspects of their fate. The question of where we locate the self, formalised in Eisenberg’s characteristically dislocating syntactical style, runs through all the stories here, which resemble highly condensed novellas.
In ‘Cross Off and Move On’, the narrator, also separated from a lover whose identity and relationship with herself she is obliged to reassess, is visited, following the death of her cousin Morrie, by disturbing recollections of her mother and of her father’s cultivated Russian-Jewish émigrée sisters. The latter supported the narrator during her childhood, providing a warm and creative family environment. Her mother (also Jewish but in denial about it) has waged a relentless war of undermining against her sisters-in-law, while also relying on them for childcare.
‘Affected,’ my mother instructs me later. ‘Intolerably pretentious. Still, you have to feel sorry for them. Their lives never amounted to anything, they’re too weak to fend for themselves … You’re timid and morbid yourself, so I hope you can at least feel some sympathy.’ She looks sternly at me and I nod.
The mother’s life has been one of devastating disappointment, which she manages through an energetic and controlling envy. Her verdict on Morrie, who had a successful career as a violinist, was ‘when you hear Morrie play the violin you really believe he will have a great future as an accountant’. Yet Eisenberg artfully elicits our sympathy, not only for the benighted narrator but also for the mother, whose own early promise has been frustrated by fate and by a disposition to chronically disparage. Although she is a monster – and this for me is the essence of Eisenberg’s appeal – the mother is redeemed by being undeniably funny. The Devil doesn’t necessarily have the best tunes, but in a fallen world he can, in a certain light, be relished and enjoyed.
‘All right – so you’re walking around in a cloud of facts that are visible only to others’ might be the collection’s watchwords – words that I, as a former psychoanalyst, applaud. Several of the storylines spring from a death; one, ‘Merge’, has for an epigraph Trump’s ‘I know words. I have the best words.’ There is no sure footing in Eisenberg’s world, but it is one that is always bracing and never dull. In its clear-sightedness, her writing feels like a palliative against the catastrophes that beset us and which it elegantly mocks and subtly defies.