Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 8, 2018

Deborah Eisenberg: short stories with a superiority complex

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Deborah Eisenberg

You couldn’t miss the arrival of Deborah Eisenberg’s latest short story collection titled “Your Duck is My Duck” if you are into socially aware, well-written fiction. The NY Times review of September 25th stated:

In a classic Deborah Eisenberg short story, “Holy Week,” a travel writer visiting an unnamed country in Central America complacently compiles adjectives as he reviews a restaurant: “relaxed,” “intimate,” “romantic.”

This being Eisenberg, things take a turn. A very different set of words are required to actually summon the day; let’s say, “anxiety,” “empire” and “guns.” These might be the same words we would compile to describe a visit to the world of Eisenberg.

Apparently, the new collection is not quite as explicitly political as those in “Under the 82nd Airborne”, a 1989 collection that referenced the wars in Central America. In the new collection, she remains political but more obliquely so. Once again from the review:

The later work is about emerging from isolation and complacency, about larger questions of what it means to live an ethical life — and, as Eisenberg has said, whether such a thing is even possible for an American. These stories emerge from the ashes of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, out of despoliation and environmental plunder.

Eisenberg was in the back of my mind when I came across a long and fawning profile of her in yesterday’s Times magazine section titled “Deborah Eisenberg, Chronicler of American Insanity”. It turns out that she has been living with Wallace Shawn for forty years. Shawn is the son of William Shawn, the long-time editor of The New Yorker Magazine under whose stewardship veered left on a fairly consistent basis. After his departure, it shifted to the right although you can find an occasionally trenchant analysis amidst the liberal dross.

I don’t want to call this nepotism but Eisenberg first got published in The New Yorker. I suspect that her writing was publishable even if the reviews over the years would have you believe that she is the second coming of Anton Chekhov.

The magazine profile describes the couple as elderly radicals just like me but certainly without a Trotskyist past. When he isn’t acting in Hollywood movies as an impish figure such as Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”, Shawn is mounting off-off-Broadway productions of his leftist plays. The 1996 “Designated Mourner” depicts, according to Wikipedia, “an unnamed Western country that is undergoing political conflict similar to what occurred in many Latin American countries during the Cold War: a ruling oligarchy with fascist tendencies, threatened by a communist guerrilla movement based in the lower class, is imprisoning and executing anyone suspected of subversion, including writers and intellectuals who have no direct connection to the guerrillas.” I refrained from spending $40 for a ticket to see the play since it was too close to my lived experience.

Reading the magazine section profile on Eisenberg left me with the impression that the couple was like many in Manhattan’s bourgeois (I use the word advisedly), bohemian left. The second sentence: “She works at a desk overlooking the gently curving stairwell in her spacious, light-soaked Chelsea apartment.” In case you aren’t up on New York real estate, this is the most expensive neighborhood in the city.

Wallace Shawn’s plays are distinguished by their hectoring tone. Americans are beasts who are responsible for the country’s ills. In “Aunt Dan and Lemon”, a play with two female characters, Lemon comes to the realization at the play’s end that ordinary people owe killers like Hitler and Kissinger a debt of gratitude for making their self-deceit possible. Was Shawn connected to the SDS Weathermen? Not as far as I know but the ideological affinities are obvious.

After visiting Central America in the 1980s, the two got into the habit of guilt-baiting those liberals who enjoy the same kind of privileges. The Times reports:

Back in New York, Eisenberg and Shawn had trouble persuading people of the full extent of what they’d seen. “There was no faster way to shut down a dinner party,” she told me.

Out of curiosity, I decided to have a look at the short story “Under the 82nd Airborne” that provides the title for her 1989 collection. I generally don’t spend much time reading fiction because I have my hands filled reading history and political analysis but reading Eisenberg’s short story was useful since it gave me insights into the mindset of a high-profile and acclaimed writer of the American left, who like her counterparts would never dream of writing anything so gauche as “Grapes of Wrath” or “Bread and Wine”. Oh, did I mention that gauche is the French word for left?

The first two sentences are not very auspicious from a stylistic perspective:

Two pallid eggs, possibly the final effort of some local chicken, quivered on the plate as the waitress set it in front of Caitlin. The waitress raised her canted black eyes, and behind her. Caitlin saw Holly entering at the far end of the room, flanked by two men.

I could probably write five hundred words about the clumsiness of this prose but will let this suffice. What is a “pallid” egg? If the eggs were scrambled, they’d be yellow. If they were sunny side up, they’d be white circles with a smaller yellow circle in the middle. Pallid leaves the reader questioning what kind of egg that would be unless Caitlin ordered fried egg whites as part of a health-conscious diet. As for the “final effort of some local chicken”, did the dying chicken lead to the “pallid” egg because it had chicken leukemia or something? And how does an egg sitting on a plate “quiver” unless it was an egg Jell-O omelet? As for “canted” black eyes, I felt put off by having to consult an online dictionary to understand what this means? Okay, let me look it up. I have nothing else better to do. So, it turns out that canted means at an angle. What are angled eyes? Is that a less racist way of saying “slant-eyed”? Was the waitress Asian? What was Eisenberg trying to say? The hell if I know.

Okay, enough about style. Let me turn to the politics.

Caitlin is a stage actress in her forties who is having trouble getting a part. Holly is her daughter who absolutely hates her. When Caitlin gives her a phone call, Holly asks, “Did someone just dump you, Mama? Is that it?” Holly was the result of a one-night stand with a fellow actor named Todd. Not long after Holly was born, the couple split up.

Anxious to see a daughter who obviously can’t stand her, Caitlin invites her to come to New York so they can hang out. Holly replies that she can’t make it because she is going on a business trip with her fiancé Brandon. The engagement was news to her mother, another sign of their distance. Showing an uncanny inability to pick up on her daughter’s cues to get lost, Caitlin invites herself along on the business trip, which turns out to be to Honduras just before the arrival of paratroopers intervening on behalf of Ronald Reagan and the contras.

This allows Eisenberg to tell a familiar story about an innocent American plunged into a hellish landscape. Done right, as in the travelogues of Paul Theroux and the novels of Graham Greene, this can make for compelling literature. In Eisenberg’s clumsy hands, however, the results are anything but. Every paragraph screams at the reader that Honduras is hot, ugly and poor. Not a single Honduran character appears in the story except a street vendor who is there as a symbol of the country’s Third World grubbiness:

She joined the grimy crowd and saw at its center a man sitting on a blanket, surrounded by small heaps of dried plants, a large trunk, and jars of smoky liquid, inside of which indistinct shapes floated. Of course, Caitlin couldn’t understand what he was saying, but his voice rose and fell, full of crescendos and exquisitely disturbing pauses, and his eyes glittered with irony as he gathered up all the vitality that had dissipated from his dusty audience and their torpor burned off in the air crackling around him.

The women in the crowd giggled and tilted their heads against one another’s shoulders; the men squirmed and smiled sheepishly. Suddenly the man on the blanket went still. He stared, then lifted his arms high and plunged them into the trunk, from which he raised, as the women screamed and scattered, a great snake that seethed luxuriantly in his hands. Caitlin found herself clinging to a barefoot woman, who smiled to excuse herself, and then, as the crowd drew together again, the man on the blanket placed the twisting snake around his shoulders and reached into the trunk for a second time. This time what he drew forth was a small white waxy-looking block. The crowd peered and craned. The man looked sternly back and silence fell. He passed his hand across the block, and as the crowd sighed like a flock of doves rising from a tree, the block began to foam.

The great snake seethed luxuriantly in his hands? How did it seethe? Like King Lear in Act Five? And why use a puzzling adverb like luxuriantly, one that might more appropriately be used to describe the life style of a Saudi prince? The New Yorker magazine became notorious for its minimalist short stories under William Shawn’s reign. Perhaps he decided to publish Eisenberg to give purple prose equal time.

As the story unfolds, Caitlin keeps running into the kind of characters found in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. Either they are CIA agents or people operating in Honduras to make a fast buck like Brandon, her future son-in-law who pilots a plane delivering war material to an American base.

A man named Lewis, who is pals with Brandon, is predictably evil. He tells Caitlin: “Oh, we all know each other down here. Not like Guatemala. Here, everything’s under control. A place for everyone, everyone in his place. Small operation, enough pie to go around; smoothly functioning system of checks and balances”.

While not so nearly as compromised as Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, Caitlin can’t seem to grasp what is going on all around her. Her wandering about Tegucigalpa has led her to a hotel filled with spooks, including a man who informs her that “The White House has announced that Nicaragua has invaded Honduras last night”. She responds cluelessly:

“Oh, that’s what it is,” Caitlin said, trying to remember. “Honduras and Nicaragua are at war—”

In a Brooklyn Rail article on Eisenberg, Andrea Scrima writes: “Eisenberg’s characters frequently possess no more than a faulty understanding of current events. She shows Americans as they all too often appear: lacking a basic grasp of political context and without a working knowledge of the cultures and histories of even the countries closest to them.”

That might be the case but any of them unfortunate enough to stumble across an Eisenberg short story in a copy of The New Yorker in the reception area of a dentist’s office will likely have even less of a working knowledge after reading it.

3 Comments »

  1. Canted also mean hypocritical and sanctimonious talk or aptitude.

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — October 9, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

  2. *means.

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — October 9, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

  3. Thanks, Louis, for your caveat. Her work will not enter my “worth-reading list.”

    Comment by Bill Boyd — October 15, 2018 @ 3:36 pm


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