The effect of reading a short story by the American author Deborah Eisenberg is such that soon after finishing – or rather being wrenched away – Eisenberg-type sentences begin to form in the brain and come forth from the mouth, gnomic and pithy. The world seems sharper and scarier: night-time fears dismissed as groundless will now, one realises, incontrovertibly prove real. In fact, the short stories in Eisenberg’s new collection Your Duck is My Duck do not really read as short stories at all, but as vignettes which transform into miniature novels, epics of torpor and treachery, rinsed through with intense, brilliant language.
It is Eisenberg’s first collection in 12 years, and only her fifth to date, since Transactions in a Foreign Country appeared in 1986, and 20 years later Twilight of the Superheroes confirmed her as a dazzling and much-lauded reinventor of the form. She has commented that writing a single short story takes her about a year, and that during the process, “there’s a feeling that everything is rushing toward something – turning into an arrow headed at a target”.
Certainly, this is borne out by the conversational, seemingly random openings of each of the six stories in Your Duck is My Duck, which begin without preliminaries; such as, “Julia found it in an pile of old stuff. She didn’t want it, so she said she would give it to Therese,” and, “Way back – oh not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the Earth’s core to its surface – I was going to a lot of parties.”
The narrator of this latter line, the book’s title story, is an impoverished painter treading water in the wake of a romantic split and envious of the perceived success of others’ more triumphant lives. An encounter at a party with a gilded couple, “who hung out with people I sort of knew, or, anyhow, whose names I knew” leads to an apparently generous invitation to live and work at their holiday complex, situated in an unnamed country. Here the vacuous wealthy, in their gated resorts, threaten the very existence of the local population through their incompetent replacing of the basic subsistence crops of grain and vegetables with eucalyptus, which burns fast and destructively in the electric storms of a drought-ridden summer. The threat of ecological disaster and the ultimate collapse of civilisation is at first muffled, then screamingly insistent as the story and the collection moves forward.
Although the Duck stories were mostly written during 2013 and 2015 – the Obama years – they seem perfectly made for the revisionism that is the hallmark of Trump’s America: a backwards sliding scale, societal, evolutionary. Eisenberg’s focus on intergenerational characters, on snarled-up, unarticulated memories, and on the mutation and possible extinction of language itself come to the fore in the exceptional, novella-length “Merge”.
Keith, the out-of-favour son of a millionaire whose company “poisoned all that water in Malaysia” – at least according to Celeste, the idealistic young woman with whom he strikes up an unlikely romance – is given, one broiling New York summer, a brief opportunity to prove himself a vaguely worthy human being. Celeste volunteers as a personal assistant and dog-walker for her elderly neighbour, Cordis: when she leaves, ostensibly on a humanitarian project to Slovakia, Keith reluctantly takes over her duties. Celeste is, in fact, in search of Cordis’s anthropologist husband, who had vanished two decades earlier on a trip to a remote prehistoric site to investigate the early development of human speech.
The triple narrative which ensues, detailing the temporary advancement of humanity and insight in Keith, Cordis’s slow unravelling and Celeste’s impossible mission to an unknown destination (from which she sends cryptic and increasingly primal one-word postcards to a baffled Keith), is a masterclass in construction and irresolution. It amounts to a perfect linguistic circumnavigation of human endeavour, the start point of which is the two epigraphs which preface the story. One is a quotation from Noam Chomsky and the other from Donald Trump: “I know words. I know the best words.”
These dovetail Celeste’s last communication “FIRE” and Cordis’s final musings on the folly of all human enterprise – “the big-brained animal so stupid… that it’s burning down its own home along with everyone else’s” – one of the many wryly devastating observations running through each of Eisenberg’s incendiary, essential pieces.
Your Duck is My Duck
Europa Editions, 240pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war