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Higher Calling

The atheistic Jewishness of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories

David L. Ulin
April 23, 2010
Deborah Eisenberg.(Brendan Hoffman; courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; some rights reserved.)
Deborah Eisenberg.(Brendan Hoffman; courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; some rights reserved.)

“I believe that people are what happened to their grandparents,” Deborah Eisenberg says, sitting and drinking tea in the sunny front room of the fifth-floor Chelsea walk-up she shares with her long-time partner, the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. Behind her, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves showcase a lifetime of reading; through the window, sounds of traffic—buses, an occasional siren—drift up from the street. “I’m not sure I can articulate this,” she continues, “but I’m in the generation that was brought up close enough to the war, the Holocaust, the camps, and yet was protected, to a degree that is amazing to think about now, in a world of synthetic safety. And I would say there was a current of anxiety that any child would have picked up on, probably continuing for several generations, underneath the very, very, very tense kind of perfect world in which I grew up.”

Eisenberg is tall, thin as an exclamation point, with hair a tousled shock of black and gray. At 64, she is also one of the pre-eminent practioners of the contemporary American short story, a writer whose sensibility is defined by the undercurrents of which she speaks. Call it the anxiety of influence, or more accurately the influence of anxiety, a subtext that illuminates her work. From her first collection of stories, 1986’s Transactions in a Foreign Currency, to her most recent, Twilight of the Superheroes, published in 2006, Eisenberg’s fiction is, if not exactly skittish, then hyper-aware, edgy—not in the way we currently use that word, but rather in an almost old-world sense of being vigilant, on edge.

All four of Eisenberg’s collections—Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Twilight of the Superheroes, Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), and All Around Atlantis (1997)—have just been reissued by Picador in The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, and it’s eye-opening to read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Taken together, these 27 stories suggest a new way of thinking about the author, a vision that is at once connected and complex. Eisenberg is commonly regarded as a commentator on modern manners, a writer with a laser-sharp and ruthless eye. Nearly all of her stories deal with characters who are outsiders: separated from their friends and families, from the culture, from themselves. In “Rosie Gets a Soul,” a young woman, trying to wean herself from heroin, gets a job as a housepainter and enters into an oddly surreptitious intimacy with the people on whose apartment she works. “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” involves a woman who flies to Montreal to meet an erstwhile boyfriend, only to be left alone when he decides to visit his estranged family for the holidays. The power of such stories is their absolute lack of sentimentality, their ability to pierce the very essence of a situation in a sentence or two. “Oh, God,” reflects the arts-foundation executive who narrates “Rafe’s Coat,” looking at the apartment she has just packed up after many years. “How awful, that mirrored view of cardboard cartons. The reflection of pure desolation. At least I wasn’t looking too awfully terrible myself, I noticed. Not too terrible, considering life and so forth. Somehow I’d managed to change remarkably little over the years.”

There’s something pitiless about such a sensibility, an almost clinical quality of observation, of seeing beneath the surfaces of daily life. Eisenberg’s characters may deceive themselves, in other words, but she is never less than fully aware of who they are. Still, for all that her people appear somehow adrift, disconnected from both heritage and history, their wandering, metaphysical or otherwise, is the wandering of the Jews. “The world,” Eisenberg says with an air of stoic certainty, “belongs to no one. There are very few people who fit into the world. And part of the struggle of every human life is to somehow claim a place on the planet, but it’s at the forefront of the experience of the wandering race. The wandering people.”

It seems strange to discuss Eisenberg as a Jewish writer since, grandparents aside, she almost never writes about Jewish themes. Of the pieces in The Collected Stories, only two, “All Around Atlantis” and “Twilight of the Superheroes,” deal with Jewishness in any overt sense; the rest focus on what their author calls an American sensibility, having to do with what it means to be from the United States. “It’s a complicated issue,” she says, “but I define myself as an American, primarily.” And yet, in a way, this is representative of a kind of Jewish cosmopolitanism. When we think about American Jewish literature, the writers who come to mind—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Tillie Olson—wear their heritage on their sleeves. There is, however, a contrapuntal lineage, going back to Nathanael West and encompassing E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, even (inasmuch as we can frame him as a writer) Bob Dylan, for whom the experience of being Jewish is less text than subtext, part of an elastic point of view.

Eisenberg fits neatly into such a tradition; West, too, is her grandparent, as it were. Like him, she is less interested in Jewishness as a category than as an attitude, a way of positioning oneself, a stance from which to view the world. In her introduction to the 2007 reissue of Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which takes place in Central Europe in the years leading up to World War II, she writes, “It is sickeningly clear to us, now, just what is about to happen back then, on the other side. And yet, though the abyss yawns conspicuously in their path, the people walking around in that particular past seem nearly oblivious. Why, why on earth don’t they watch where they’re going?”

Such a statement might apply just as well to Eisenberg’s own fiction, which relies on a similar kind of friction, the double vision between what the characters take for granted and what the author knows. “The Robbery” opens with a married couple discussing the infidelity of their friends, prior to a dinner party; as the story progresses, we realize, although the wife never does, that it is actually her husband who is having the affair. “I needed a woman,” Eisenberg explains, “who was in many areas of life—and this is something I’ve been interested in on a number of occasions—suppressing or repressing information that is available to her. The information is there. The character does not want to have the information, for various reasons. I want the reader to experience what that repression of information feels like, so that it’s coming more and more and more insistently.”

Here we have a perfect encapsulation of Eisenberg’s aesthetic, which operates by inference, requiring us to read between the lines. This, too, has its roots in the tension between worlds, old and new, with which she was raised. “I grew up around a lot of—they weren’t exactly secrets, but they were things that weren’t discussed,” she recalls, drawing out the syllables, pausing in the effort to be precise. “I remember when I was about 5 saying to my grandfather, who was—who knows where any of my grandparents were from, but he was from over there, as it was called—and I said to my grandfather, ‘What was it like where you came from?’ And he said: ‘It was cold.’ That was the end of the conversation, and so whether you know about your grandparents’ experience or not, you enact it or you embody it somehow.”

In that regard, it only makes sense that so many of Eisenberg’s characters are displaced persons, that they are oblivious in so many ways. It’s equally fitting that from the beginning, her fiction has been marked by an attention to politics, to the responsibilities of privilege and the divide between those with power and those without. Several stories in her first three collections—“Broken Glass,” “Under the 82nd Airborne,” “Holy Week,” “Someone to Talk To”—unfold in Latin America and involve U.S. intervention there. Fully half of Twilight of the Superheroes explores American culture in the wake of September 11, a turning point that, Eisenberg believes, could have helped us understand our place in the world, but has instead become the justification for a heightened sense of entrenchment and fear. “Do you know how I get the news here?” a character asks in Twilight of the Superheroes’ shattering title story. “From your newspapers? Please! From your newspapers I learn what restaurants have opened. News I learn in taxis, from the drivers. And how do they get it? From their friends and relatives back home, in Pakistan or Uzbekistan or Somalia. The drivers sit around at the airport, swapping information, and they can tell you anything. But do you ask? … Here you’re able to speak freely, within reason, of course, and isn’t it wonderful that you all happen to want to say exactly what they want you to say? … [J]ust keep your eyes closed, panic, don’t ask any questions, and you can speak freely about whatever you like.” The sense of outrage, of social justice, embodied by such a passage is, in Eisenberg’s words, “ineradicable,” an inevitable legacy not just of her reaction to the present but of her upbringing, her grandparents, as well.

This, of course, is why we turn to literature—or one of the reasons, anyway. We want our writers to tell us the truth of the world as they see it, to explicate the shadow narrative, the smaller private story hidden within the larger public one. For all that we like to talk about art existing in a place beyond politics, it is impossible to separate out a quality of engagement, of the way characters, or authors, interact with the larger world. “Politics,” Eisenberg says, “is a matter of human transaction. I consider absolutely everything political, because all fiction involves relationships between people, and relationships between people always include matters of power, of equity, of communication.” There are, she admits, dangers inherent in this way of thinking: the risk that the work will become strident or doctrinaire. But for Eisenberg, all of that is leavened by a kind of fatalism, almost a Jewish atheism, the belief or recognition that we cannot ultimately know the future, or even why we do the things we do.

At times, she writes with a tone of nearly anthropological detachment, questioning her characters’ most deeply felt commitments and assumptions with ironic grace. “Oh, of course, it’s very nice to think—very seductive—that you have some sort of ‘home’ somewhere, that you could return to, that would make some kind of sense of your life,” a woman exclaims in “Tlaloc’s Paradise.” “Because, a place—I mean, what is that? A place? What you leave, what you go to; here or there, ‘home’ or ‘foreign’—Well, it’s all based on, on the most fantastic misunderstanding, isn’t it.” There are no epiphanies in her stories, no illusion that one experience leads necessarily to another, that we are anything more than creatures lost in a universe largely beyond our reckoning, doing what we do for reasons we can’t understand. “I think,” she says, “that we are very interesting animals who have certain characteristics and properties and we go about our strange and funny little activities, and they’re tremendously important to us personally, but they are, seen from a certain distance, maybe a little bit like the way ants build anthills. They go about their business and so do we.”

On the one hand, that’s an absurdist perspective, an expression of futility on the grand scale. “All right,” declares the narrator of “Holy Week,” a travel writer who glosses over the unrest in the Latin American country he visits while filing upbeat reports on restaurants and hotels. “Yes, the planet is littered with bodies. No one’s going to dispute that—and the bodies are surrounded by clues. But what those clues mean, and where they point—well, that’s something else altogether, isn’t it?”

And yet, for Eisenberg, all this comes infused with responsibility, with the realization that while ultimate meaning may elude us, there are profound meanings in the here and now. “How do we act?” she asks, as the afternoon wanes into evening and the tea grows cold. “What do we do? Yes, we’re animals and we have these innate needs, including the need to kill. But it seems to me that the marvelous attribute of being human is not toolmaking, since it turns out other creatures make tools, and it’s not language since it turns out other creatures communicate.” She pauses, perhaps thinking again about her grandparents, about what they found and what they left behind. “No,” she says finally. “It’s that we have great choice about our behavior. We can control ourselves.”

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, and editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, and editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.

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