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.
Eisenberg isn’t a rapid response fiction writer, and the political threads in the six stories in her new collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, reflect her perennial concerns rather than indignations specific to the Trump era, though the president does furnish an epigraph to the book’s longest and trickiest story, ‘Merge’. The other comes from Noam Chomsky and is not to do with politics but with the origins of human language. Like ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’, ‘Merge’ sets the experiences of an ageing New Yorker in counterpoint to the lives of young people just starting out. As in the earlier story, the older character’s troubles have a ring of reality while the young seem to exist on the edge of a fairy tale.
In contrast, Eisenberg’s voices have the neurotic urbanity and New York sophistication of the culture that produced Woody Allen, with characters who tend to be educated, creative, and often ill-used by the crass powers of money and success. Now in her seventies, Eisenberg has produced her first collection in 12 years — and is held in high esteem in America. At best, her descriptions and one-liners are highly quotable, with a knockabout wisdom and an underlying melancholy; the effect can be haunting as well as funny.
Eisenberg is preoccupied with her narrators’ misconceptions — with our tendency to misread others. These blind spots make the future, rather than the past, immutable. In ‘Merge’, a young couple are incap-able of changing one another as they would like. Is this simply a question of language being less powerful than we imagine, or is everything preordained anyway?
These stories take their time, draw us in to their claustrophobic little worlds, and savour language and humanity, in all their muddled, inadequate glory.
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.