Deborah Eisenberg has far too much fun writing short stories. I don’t mean that peevishly—it’s just that her investment on the paragraph and structure levels is admirable, and that her short stories are such comedies! They’re full of idiosyncratic sad people who treat each other carelessly but love each other very much. The gut punch in Eisenberg’s stories always lands reliably, and oh, what a comfort that is. Take ‘Rafe’s Coat’ for instance, a story for which I have much affection—it starts with the divorce proceedings of our narrator who is a close friend of Rafe’s, and includes long expositions on the intricate plot-twists of ‘This Brief Candle’, a fictitious show in which Rafe’s girlfriend stars. It’s a magnificent story. It’s a hell of a ride.
First published in Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Penguin, 1986. Collected in The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Picador, 2010
I’m still more than a little surprised that every short story-reading human I meet doesn’t greet me by grabbing my shoulders and demanding that we talk right now about Deborah Eisenberg’s ‘Your Duck Is My Duck’. This is the sort of story whose omission from, well, anywhere at all ought to mean an early and well-earned retirement for the editors in question. I myself missed it when it appeared in Fence: thank heaven for them, for the O. Henry anthology, and for Lauren Groff in championing this story of the rich and poor, artists and patrons, painters and puppeteers.
As that list suggests: one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction with anything to say about right-the-hell-now is getting everybody in the same room. Your Duck not only manages this, but, unblinking, shows how little doing so might matter, how much deeper we’re in it than we imagine, how very late is the hour.
When our narrator, a struggling painter, tries to return some dresses given by her very rich hostess, we get this: “‘The dresses?’ she said. She smiled vaguely, and patted me, as though I had barked.”
There’s so much in this story—every twist and turn is a necessary point on the map of itself. Any account of it would just devolve into endless quotation until the whole story would be typed out below. I won’t do that to you—if you promise to seek the story out yourselves.
In Your Duck Is My Duck, Ecco, 2018, and available through Electric Literature here
Eisenberg’s one of the authors I discovered in the 80s, during that short story moment I mentioned earlier. This newish story is one I’d never read before — but will never forget. Her work gets under your skin. Like all the best writing, what it seems to be about is the iceberg’s tip. Yes, it’s about family, about love, about secrets. But really it’s about all of life in a life. It’s haunting and I predict I’ll read it several more times.
Published in The New York Review of Books in 2011, and available to read here