The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

by Deborah Eisenberg

Picador | 2010 | 980 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

deborah eisenberg

The stories of Deborah Eisenberg are luminous, well crafted and beautiful—so why were they so hard for me to get through?  Maybe it was the size of the book—The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg is a hefty tome, a retrospective, if you will, of about 1,000 pages (980, to be exact).  I went through the stories slowly—sitting on the bed beside my children while they watched “Scooby Doo,” reading in the car as my husband drove to the grocery store, in coffee shops, and in my own bed. It seemed too daunting a task—to reasonably assess a writer of Eisenberg’s brilliance, and to come to some coherent conclusions about her remarkable contribution to the short story.

Or maybe I was having trouble reading the stories because the stories themselves were jarring, like little stomach punches that hurt with their very eloquence.  Perhaps I didn’t want to awaken from my malaise and be shown the world that Eisenberg so deftly reveals in her stories, the harsh reality of unrealized desires that fester and implode and the world of grace that can only be scratched at.  I’d read some of these stories years ago and rereading them was to reenter my past where, indeed, the world was shiny, yet attainable (yet maddeningly unavailable at the same time, the world as a blind date who refuses to be forthcoming, yet is suggestively, yearningly desirable).

Let me first speak of Eisenberg’s vocabulary.  Her words are sewn together with quirky finesse, so the abrasive and the fragile are stitched together in a sort of poetic puzzle.  Eyes are described as “lost, and metallic,” for example.  The words “shiny,” “glistened,” even “beautiful,” are sprinkled liberally throughout.  I am drawn to her language.  Many authors rely heavily on image, but I was aware while reading Eisenberg of how her images engulf the reader with a tactile fullness.  She describes her landscapes so vividly that the very air takes on a protean, real quality.

Her objects—tea sets, paintings, a woman’s expensive silk slip—represent a deeper truth that the characters cannot infiltrate.  So these accessories seem to be covered with a patina, a coating that only suggests the deeper reality.  The women in these stories are constantly striving to get beneath the surface, to shatter the beautiful veneer, as in the story, “Broken Glass.” 

In this story, the protagonist has gone on a vacation to a remote, “exotic” locale to recover from the recent death of her mother.  Instead of spending her time alone, she parties with expatriates who are both self-satisfied and embarrassed by their situation.  They seem gleefully amused by the peasants in the village—their customs and their attire—yet are unable to be a true part of their world, even though they have lived abroad for decades.  Sandra, a pseudo-bohemian who is portrayed as a delicate flower, finally slips into madness when she tosses glasses at her own party.  (So many things come to mind here, the parties of The Great Gatsby, Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife, being locked away, and the way women were sheltered.)  The main character is left bewildered.  Are these people happy?  Does gaiety disguise deep remorse, or worse, the ugliness of those responsible for colonialism?

In another story, called “Rosie Gets a Soul,” Rosie, a decorative house painter (she paints children’s bedrooms and elaborate murals) becomes obsessed with a slip hanging in the bathroom of a wealthy couple.  This slip represents what the main character doesn’t have—ease, luxury, and stability.  The owner of the house, Harris, seems drawn to Rosie, yet he will not allow himself to be swept away by the “hired help.”  Instead, they share a chaste cup of tea on the bed in the room where she has just finished an elaborate painting.  The ending of the story is sad and oblique—Rosie imagines the couple thinking about her.  “They will.  Yes, let them think about her…” ends the story.   Yet what are the consequences if they do think of her?  And what about Rosie?  She’s holding onto life by a thread.  What will fill the void when she no longer obsesses about Harris?

The main characters in Eisenberg’s stories are often involved with side characters that display a sort of crazy, superior knowledge.  These soothsayers can be the most seemingly innocuous players, who suddenly crack and begin talking incessantly in breathless monologues.  These strange, riveting soliloquies often act as a foil to the protagonist’s “grand plans.”  The rampages are philosophical, yet nonsensical, exposing the outrageous id and desire of the speaker.  For example, one woman at a party—Susan, described as the brilliant one--suddenly rambles on about the meaning of life: “But don’t you sometimes have the terribly vivid sensation that under this thing we refer to as ‘life’ is something that—how do I say this?—that there is this thing going on, and we make it, or it makes itself, possibly, and then there is this other thing that it looks like, or seems like, which is only sort of a top view of the first thing.  A reflection if you see what I mean…”  Many writers would end here, but Eisenberg propels her character on and on, pulling the reader along with her in a dizzying spell of words that cascade and fall in an almost dream-like quality.

In another story, a sort of dried-up pianist gets involved with an interviewer named Beale when he goes to perform in a developing country.  The story teeters on black humor as the sort of sloppy (he always seems to be consuming something), disgusting interviewer seems to devour the angst-ridden pianist with his sheer abundance of words.

This leads me to talk about Eisenberg’s men.  Some of these stories are romances, if you can call them that, or at least they are stories between two people, male and female.  In many of these stories Eisenberg honors the oddballs and eccentrics, the men, especially, who are paralyzed by their own high standards.  In one of my favorites, “A Cautionary Tale,” young Patty arrives in New York City, but is thwarted to a certain extent (but is she really?) by meeting the prickly, yet strangely lovable, Stuart.  Stuart refuses to engage in anything phony, and he is sweet.  But his sweetness, and his bold refusal to engage, begins to suffocate Patty.  Ivan, of “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” is a similar rogue who abandons the main character when she flies to Canada to visit him over Christmas.  The woman does what she will to nurture Ivan, but he goes off to visit his first wife.  Yet there are no pity parties for the Eisenberg gals, who are tough, realistic, and funny.  These stories aren’t particularly domestic in nature, though there are domestic scenes; the shape and density of the stories do not lend themselves to simple categorization that way.

When I read an Eisenberg story, there is no mistake that I am reading a short story and a piece of writing that is molded and crafted and should be a short story and nothing else.  Eisenberg’s stories are true works of art.  Like a dance or a painting, they should be rejoiced in.  I tried to make some sense of the “progression of her career,” but it sounds rather bland to do so when faced with the beauty and richness of her glorious sentences.  In an early story, “What It Was Like Seeing Chris,” a teenaged girl dates an older guy; in the last story in the book, a heart-broken mother wonders about the state of her son.  There appears to be a progression in the stories, from the perspective of a young/single woman to a “woman-encumbered-with-husband-and-children,” and in all the stories, the voice is so fresh, so keen and aware.

As I said before, it took me a while to finally finish the book, but when I did I was seized with a sense of panic.  No more, I thought as I leafed back through pages in case I’d missed anything?  I felt a sense of sadness that the book was finally over; I wanted to begin again and I did.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Return to home page