In a recent review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master in the London Review of Books, the film critic Michael Wood describes the character played by Joaquin Phoenix as, “a potential misfit in any arrangement where fitting might be required.” The same could be said of the characters in Deborah Eisenberg’s stories, who often feel so detached from their surroundings that they could be mistaken for—and seem to have mistaken themselves for—visitors from another planet. In “Days,” the narrator gives up smoking and no longer understands herself:
“I feel that I am a zoologist trying to discover the natural environment of an unknown animal found in a pet store,” she says, “I wish this were the task of someone else, but the biological setup of our planet requires a rather strict one-to-one relationship between each corporeal entity and the consciousness with which it is accustomed to associate, and it seems that I am stuck.”
The young narrator of “A Lesson in Traveling Light,” bewildered by her boyfriend’s stylish old friends at dinner, muses, “‘it’s odd to sit like this, in body holders around a disk, and move little heaps of matter from smaller disks to our mouths on little metal shovels. It seems like an odd way to make our bodies live.’” And the ingénue girlfriend in “Rafe’s Coat” surveys an uptown party and remarks, “how funny it is that everything’s all divided up into these different packages. […] When you see people all together, milling around like this, it seems so, sort of, arbitrary.” These characters are remote, as though peering into an exotic aquarium – transfixed by the world they see, certain they’d never survive inside.
The reward, if not the consolation, for their peering is perspicacity; they are painfully aware of the ways in which not only themselves, but others, are out of place. “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” begins with the narrator receiving a call from an old lover. Suddenly, the man on her couch, for whom she has just poured coffee and brandy, seems “like a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band.” She proceeds to answer the old (and much older) lover’s whistle and finds herself in Montreal, where neither she nor anyone else she meets seems to belong. The lover decides to spend Christmas with his ex-wife and son, and she finds herself alone in the strange, frigid city, with a pocket full of “variegated, colorful Canadian bills” that so catch her attention that the man in the currency bureau remarks, “an unfamiliar medium of exchange, yes?” She doesn’t eat, drink or speak to another person for almost three days. When company does arrive, it is in the form of a dissolute Vietnam veteran, who claims to have fled the US nine years earlier, after shooting a man in a street fight. He rolls up one of the unfamiliar notes to snort cocaine, saying, “Still play money to me.”
This man is a relative of the “older good-for-nothings from the U.S., ‘60s casualties with greasy, faded ponytails” noticed by an uneasy college student in “Across the Lake.” Rob has spent his summer winding “down and down and down” through South America, “in buses throbbing with peasants and chickens,” and now he has journeyed to a small, possibly dangerous village with a jaded American couple who are “hunting textiles” to export to the US. In the safety of the town on the other side of the lake, the couple had been alluring, charismatic in the “sanctum of their unwashed majesty.” Now, they seem seedy and malign: they disdain the tourists in pantsuits, but are in thrall to their local contact—a hardened compatriot and likely army informer (“sensitivity to rank,” thinks Rob, “was fundamental to this aristrocracy of wanderers”). The contact, the couple, and the student represent the possibilites for Eisenberg’s Americans in Latin America: nefarious action, self-serving indifference, craven observation, or, as becomes clear, the combination of the three that, to various but inevitable degrees, characterize expatriate life.
“Broken Glass” presents another couple of “’60’s casualties,” Sandra and Norman—aging drunks who labor to sustain the charade of a “lovely” life in a picturesque Latin American town (the colors of walls “softened by an aged, powdery bloom”) that, in the words of an American realtor, “has been a prime piece of real estate for something like a thousand years.” The charade is observed by their tenant, the story’s narrator, a thirty-four-year-old woman from Chicago who has spent twenty-five years watching her mother succumb to a degenerative illness. “My mother had been ill for so long that all time had flowed toward her death,” she says.” She is furiously resentful of her landlords’ efforts to enlist her as audience—insisting that she join them for afternoon cocktails and morning coffee, into which they pour a local liquer. “So this is what was meant by ‘traveling,’ by ‘taking a vacation,’” she thinks, “these unnavigable currents, this sudden immersion in the lives of utter strangers, their thin, dreadful lives.” Anyone who idly imagines an easy exchange of city pressures and snow for a congenial existence in a warm and inexpensive foreign locale should take heed of the tenant’s impressions of her landlords’ frequent parties:
The guests, often people who would hardly have spoken to one another in the United States, were bound together here by the conviction, based on the spending power of their dollars, of their own merit, and necessarily, therefore, the merit of their companions. They reinforced this conviction by continuous complaints about the town (and it was true that nothing ever happened on time, nothing was ever properly done, there were endless, inexplicable shortages of goods – it was a world of exasperating shrugs and smiles), and all conversations on these evenings were suspended in a medium of expatriate complicity, where no one had ever suffered any past indignity or disappointment, where no one, in fact, seemed to have any antecedents whatsoever. […] Any sharp-edged remnant of life ‘back at home’ that might mar the smooth afternoons was washed away in the evenings’ flood of alcohol. The morning sun burned off the hangovers. There was only one beautiful day and then another, and life being squandered.
This notion of “expatriate complicity” is important to Eisenberg, and extends beyond the communal illusion of happiness. As a well-heeled local remarks over glasses of neat gin another evening at Sandra and Norman’s, people come to this town “from wherever one can be indicted for tax evasion. Or war crimes. Or fraud.” This darker, more menacing complicity corrupts even the most oblivious of these lives.
Most of the expatriate lives, however, are not oblivious at all. In addition to sots in Bermuda shorts in “Broken Glass,” we encounter an embassy liaison in “Someone to Talk To” who has organized a music festival in order to, “rectify the, ah, perception that we’re identified with the military down here”; in “Under the 82nd Airborne” we see pale men in Contra-sheltering Honduras “disclosing the contents of their briefcases to dark men in sunglasses.” In “Holy Week” a complacent travel journalist takes his much younger girlfriend to a Central American town to see the Easter pageantry. Their guide is a retired employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is friendly with a powerful and guerilla-repressing local grower, but is unable to identify a common local fern; when asked by the young girlfriend whether the army she sees marching past the hotel gate is “one of the ones we like, or one of the ones we don’t like,” he responds, “The United States? Nothing’s ever that simple, is it?” These characters are all implements of antidemocratic U.S. policy, and the distinction between them and Sandra and Norman, or the straggly “aristocracy of wanderers” who conduct unsavory business and regard tourists with scorn, is unstable. As Rob in “Across the Lake” observes, “It was simple—one had power and money on one’s side; inevitably every act one committed was predicated on that fact.”
This, then, is Eisenberg’s message. Power and money—agency—bestowed by nationality involve us in horrors, whether they are recognized, rationalized, or ignored. As Sarah, the young girlfriend in “Holy Week” points out, as U.S. citizens, “We’re soldiers, and that’s our uniform.” And yet, the force of these stories of Americans abroad lies less in the disgrace of complicity than in the fury of Eisenberg’s specificity: these characters are vivid and affecting, no matter how far from home, how alienated from their reality, how appalling their misapprehension and injurious their contempt, or, like the young woman in “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” how helplessly they regard others as a handle from a broken cup — “a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three or many times before one understands that it is just a thing best thrown away.” Eisenberg neither excuses the corruption nor dismisses the confusion of these lives. She makes their detachment familiar – whether desperate, dangerous, or both.
Click here for more on Deborah Eisenberg’s life and work.
Tara Gallagher has written about books for the New Yorker, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, and is studying for an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, grew up in Bermuda, and has been an expatriate all her life.
Aquarium photo: Felix Albrecht
Broken cup photo via flickr/aaron13251