I’ve always loved a good small-world story. I’m not talking about degrees of separation or celebrity sightings; I mean those times when worlds collide, when you discover a strange and wonderful set of connections between people you know, that—at least for a moment—upends the natural order of things. My all-time favorite: in the mid-1950s, my former mother-in-law was an au pair in Paris for a boy who, I discovered some 40 years later, would go on to marry, and then divorce, the mother of a grade-school friend of my son’s long before she and I met.
If that was a difficult sentence to parse, rest assured that the reality was a little hard to grasp as well. It’s amazing, if you think about it—the ways of being connected to each other on the greater scale. Then again, it’s amazing on the smallest scale, too. Friends, family, acquaintances, and lovers: no relationship is ever as simple as it first appears. Over time, we gain a better understanding of this, but it’s a writer’s job to show us how best to marvel at it—the short story, with its tight, spare framework, being perhaps the perfect medium.
Many writers make it their business to examine the ties that bind us. But few explore that sense of perplexity, even in the most ordinary relationships, as well as Deborah Eisenberg. Her stories cover a diverse range of circumstances, characters, and locales, but each is deeply interested in that invisible connective tissue between people—anecdotes, gossip, lies, family mythologies, news dispatches, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
This scrupulous concern with what separates and joins us, along with some beautifully inventive language, a talent for understatement, and a refusal to condescend to the reader in any way, have earned Eisenberg considerable attention in a relatively short time. With four collections under her belt, as well as some recent stories in the New York Review of Books, Eisenberg has managed to garner a Whiting Writers’ Award for fiction, a Rea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim Fellowship, four O. Henry Awards, a PEN/Faulkner award, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a MacArthur Genius Grant—all of this since 1986, when she published her first book, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, at the age of 41.
The title of that debut collection is telling. Eisenberg’s characters suffer from a kind of social forgetfulness; they know they’re connected to each other but periodically need to think about how that might have happened. They’re endlessly asking, in one way or another, the question every dementia sufferer’s family dreads: “Could you remind me, again, just how we’re related?” Because, all things considered, that’s not a simple question. Consider the teenage narrator in “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris,” describing a strange, vaguely unsavory man she’s met:
Later I asked Maureen about Chris. I was afraid of talking about him because it seemed as if he might dissolve if I did, but I needed Maureen’s advice badly. I told her it was just like French class, where there were two words for “you.” Sometimes when Chris said “you” to me I would turn red, as if he had used some special word. And I could hardly say “you” to him. It seemed amazing to me sometimes when I was talking to Chris that a person could just walk up to another person and say “you.”
“Does that mean something about him?” I asked. “Or is it just about me?”
“It’s just you,” Maureen said. “It doesn’t count. It’s just like when you sit down on a bus next to a stranger and you know that your knee is touching his but you pretend it isn’t.”
Mother, daughter, girlfriend, wife: these are roles, Eisenberg explains, that we fall into mostly by accident. What we do with them is not usually preordained either.
That sense of the accidental also happens, as it turns out, to mirror Eisenberg’s career. Growing up in Winnetka, Illinois, a wealthy North Shore suburb of Chicago, Deborah Eisenberg never dreamed of being a writer, despite having had all the ingredients at hand—the outsider identity as a Jew in a WASPy town who wore a body brace for scoliosis from age 12-16; an appropriately rebellious nature and consequently strained familial relations; and most of all a love of reading. “Writers were magical beings anointed by God,” she explained in an interview last year. “It never occurred to me that I could write, so I never did it. I thought either you were born a writer or you weren’t. When I was in high school, all my friends said that they were going to be writers…. and I thought, ‘Hey, how come you get to be a writer?’”
Instead, she cultivated a kind of aspirational disinterest. She was packed off to boarding school in Vermont, then went on to nearby Marlboro College, where she lasted two years. There followed the obligatory stint of hitchhiking around with a boyfriend (this was the mid-’60s) and a short stay in Boston. Finally, Eisenberg’s mother called her with the news that there was a school in New York that would, in her words, “take anyone.” That was the New School for Social Research, a progressive, free (at the time) university devoted to the humanities and social sciences.
Eisenberg wound up in New York, waitressing and living in a series of ratty apartments. Even then, she had no conception of herself as a writer—or even much of a scholar. As she explained it in a 1989 BOMB Magazine interview,
I thought, “Well, why should I go to college to read a book? I’ll just sign up for this other thing. The social sciences.” I had no idea what they were or what that meant. So, in fact, I stupidly did something that I couldn’t have done better intelligently. Because I was then exposed to this entire universe of thought and writing that I never would have encountered otherwise.
Even with a newly acquired B.A., Eisenberg continued waiting tables. She worked briefly as an assistant for Robert Silver at the New York Review of Books but was, by her own admission, a terrible secretary. Waitressing, on the other hand, was reassuringly straightforward: “If you brought them the hamburger, you had succeeded. If you didn’t bring them the hamburger, you had failed.”
In 1972 she met playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, the son of New Yorker editor William Shawn, and the two moved in together soon after. But he had asthma, and Eisenberg smoked three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day, so it was clear something had to go. She quit (the two remain partners to this day). In the depths of her shattered, cold-turkey misery, Shawn handed her a notebook and pen and told her, “Well, you don’t have anything to lose at this point.” From Eisenberg’s first story “Days”:
The smoke-free air is a flat, abrasive surface that I must inch my way along, but I am subject to sudden seizures of pellucid hatred which impel me out the door during dinner or in the early hours of the morning, or, when I am to helpless to move, into weak, furious storms of tears. Although I am demanding and insatiable, everything I want is sucked dry of flavor and color and warmth by the time I get it, like packaged foods in an employee cafeteria.
“Days” began as a detox diary of going to the YMCA with a helpful friend, but finally morphed into a work of fiction, with much coaching from Shawn. Eventually she showed it to the friend in question, who happened to be a director, and “Days” was produced as a reading at the Public Theater.
The story found a fan in Joseph Papp, who asked her to write him a play. And though Eisenberg felt she had no idea how to do that, and didn’t want to give up her steady waitressing gig, she let him put her on salary—“I really was hardly in a position to say, ‘Well, Joe, I’d really much rather be a waitress than write a play.’”
The process got off to a slow start, but by the time Pastorale was finished she was genuinely happy with it. Papp, on the other hand, hated the play and washed his hands of it. But her director friend went ahead and put it on at Second Stage, where it was well-received. Eisenberg, buoyed by a new confidence in her own work, began to write stories—slowly, and for her own eyes only. One day, though, a neighborhood woman who was a regular at the restaurant where she worked began to pester her: “You’re a writer, I can tell!” The woman, who turned out to be Laurie Colwin, eventually wore Eisenberg down and was given a story to read. She, in turn, passed it on to her friend Alice Quinn, an editor at Knopf, who immediately offered Eisenberg a contract. Transactions in a Foreign Currency was published in 1986 to almost universal critical acclaim, followed by Under the 82nd Airborne in 1992, All Around Atlantis in 1998, and Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories in 2007, all of which have been gathered in the marvelous—and hefty—The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.
When discussing her abrupt change of professional fortune, Eisenberg is candid about not having been ready for the limelight earlier, and the benefits of waiting, however inadvertently, for the right time. In 1986, she held forth on being 40 to Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times:
It’s an odd age, isn’t it? … it’s sort of meaningless, and yet on the other hand one changes so much more than I had been prepared for. I thought you would get to be 25 and you would be all baked, your life would be cooked. It’s odd, because one is terribly aware of it going in certain ways, terribly aware of an accretion of experience that is always changing you and always changing your view of things, but one doesn’t experience it as time—one experiences it as change.
She has the good sense to realize how lucky she’s been, but her story still has the narrative arc of a Bloom-worthy inspirational tale. In fact, much of her fiction engages the question of luck—of birthplace, of class, of turning left when one could have turned right. She’s also deeply interested in the choices we make and the ways we fit ourselves into the lives we’re given, whether the stories take place in hipster New York, the Midwestern suburbs, America-betrayed Latin America, or an apartment filled with tea-drinking, silence-keeping Holocaust survivors. And she’s invested in listening to what remains unsaid, telling BOMB Magazine’s Craig Lucas: “Information … that we’ve repressed in order to lead the lives that we lead and to think of ourselves as the pleasant, decent human beings who have barbecues or make our own pasta…. And the repression of this information takes a phenomenal toll on our conscious thoughts.”
Eisenberg’s first collection offers up a series of first-person narratives from women who are trying—sometimes, but not often, successfully—to find their way in the world. As her concerns have broadened and deepened, the stories have as well, moving into the third person and characters further removed from her own experience. But in every one of them, she shines a sly light on the smallest of gestures.
These are not moral tales. The calculatedly oblivious aging flower child who gets herself in over her head with some gun-runners (“Under the 82nd Airborne”); the terminally cranky partner to a frustratingly saintly man (“Some Other, Better Otto”); the ex-junkie painting murals in rich people’s apartments, determined to underachieve on the most heroic scale possible (“Rosie Gets a Soul”); the unfaithful spouses, selfish parents, passive girlfriends, drifting boys—Eisenberg doesn’t judge. Step back from one of those panoramic 16th-century peasant paintings and you can tell right away if you’re looking at horror or humor, a Bosch or a Breughel. But focus in on a tiny detail, one small corner of the canvas, and you’re not so sure now, are you?
In the lead story from Under the 82nd Airborne, “A Cautionary Tale,” Eisenberg offers up a clue as to how all those years spent waiting tables were, perhaps, the very education a nascent writer needs:
It may seem that because there is not much room for certain kinds of elaboration in the act of ordering something at a restaurant little is expressed by it. But in fact the very restriction of the situation is the precondition of deep grooves through which individual personalities are extruded with great force. “You do that?” is what your waiter or waitress or bartender is thinking as you place your order. “You’re like that?”
While I do feel a kinship with these characters because so many of them come out of familiar territory—haughty Jews, families dependent on denial, the perils of New York in the 1980s, disjointed druggy conversations—my sense of recognition isn’t as narrow as all that. Reading these stories, I get the same feeling I do when I’m looking at a crowd photo in the paper, or one of those Humans of New York photos, and recognize someone I know. It’s not that I’m so well connected. It’s not that I’m fabulous. It’s just because I’ve lived here a while, and I keep my eyes open.
Deborah Eisenberg has lived here a while too, and it’s our good fortune that she has kept her eyes open. Her people are our people.
And after all, it is a very small world. Or, if you prefer, a mystifyingly large one. In the end the difference between connecting on a great scale or on a small one turns out simply to be a matter of how closely you look.
Click here for “Eisenbergers Abroad,” a look at expatriates in Deborah Eisenberg’s stories.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Homepage photo by Diana Michener