Among this year’s rich crop, Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck is My Duck is outstanding.
Everything about Eisenberg’s writing is highly controlled — watchful, well-made — and everything it describes teeters on the verge of chaos or collapse. It makes for a brilliant mixture of a book — at once compact and capacious, eerily familiar and extremely strange.
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”.
Eisenberg isn’t tough going – far from it – but she defies neat summary, perhaps in part because, by her own admission, she conceives of individual stories, not collections, leaving those to editors. Now in her 70s, she’s prized across the Atlantic, but isn’t as well known in Britain, where she hasn’t had a regular publisher; here’s hoping that changes with this scintillating showcase of her one-off talent.
The characters in Deborah Eisenberg's complex, compelling, subtle short stories inhabit a disintegrating world.
There's old age to contend with, fractured families, faltering relationships and a fierce fear for the planet where all this miscommunication and disconnection takes place.
In the titular story an insomniac artist, who's the guest of rich couple Ray and Christa, says: 'It's not so hard to figure out why I'm not sleeping.
Eisenberg is as alive to the potentialities of language as any contemporary writer I know. This is what makes her work so funny and exciting, and is also what provides its philosophical heft. She is fascinated by its limitations: her stories are full of incomplete sentences, misunderstandings and double meanings...One of the epigraphs in “Merge” is a Donald Trump quote – “I know words. I have the best words” – and the longer story’s power proves that Eisenberg doesn’t need dystopias: she’s perfectly capable of summoning apocalyptic atmospheres by focusing her extraordinary talents on the world right outside the window.
‘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.