Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories just won this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award, and last year she received a MacArthur.
If you’ve been following the buzz but haven’t yet discovered the pleasures of her work, now is the time. Start with Transactions in a Foreign Currency, which appeared in 1986.
I was wowed by her most recent collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, whose title story shows a masterful shuffling of the funny-absurd and the sacred-tragic, juxtaposing the fall of the World Trade Center with a comic book hero called Passivity Man. Her later work may have more complex narrative architecture and more varied points of view (the first book is all in the first person), but Transactions has the signature Eisenberg wit, playfulness with language, hyper-alertness to the minutiae of consciousness, a delight in philosophical parsing, and neurotic characters with flaming insecurities and labyrinthine sensitivities.
One of my favorite stories is the first she ever wrote (and the only one, she claims, which is autobiographical): “Days.” It has the most unorthodox structure, like a diary, and its only subject is the narrator coping with life after quitting smoking. Not much happens, and that is the point. People keep asking the narrator: “Well, I mean, you get up, and then what do you do?” and she doesn’t have a ready answer.
The story’s subject is a brain working on overdrive, processing minor interactions (offhand comments from strangers who pass her on the stairs and whom she bumps into crossing the street) and decisions (to swim or run, take a long or short shower, buy tube socks or not). It’s a journey of self-discovery, which starts: “The person I had always assumed to be behind the smoke was revealed to be a tinny weight-and-balances apparatus, rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen.”
Part of the delight of this story is that it reminds me of the wonder I had as a child, and even the nonstop questioning of the world I had as a teenager, the feeling that I was a visitor from another planet trying to figure out why earthlings had such strange customs. Most of the characters in this book retain that disorientation and constant attentiveness, even into their twenties. I would argue that, as writers, we need to maintain or recapture it, to never take the workings of the world for granted.
A corollary to Eisenberg’s characters’ not knowing the rules is their extreme self-consciousness and worry that they will behave inappropriately and be judged—another feeling that brings me back to that vivid unease that comes from being so young. How many times I have felt like this: “Sometimes it seems to me that there is a growing number of women, and that I am not among them.” Eisenberg also perfectly captures the feeling of being the only one who does not have an instruction manual for living: “Without having aroused his suspicion (what do I mean? suspicion of what?) I have gotten the information I need, which is that, despite the supercharged atmosphere of conversations about it, there is no particular trick to running, unless, of course, there is something so obvious that Surf wouldn’t have thought to tell me, or so embarrassing that he couldn’t bring himself to tell me, or so ineffable that he wasn’t able to tell me.”
Another pleasure of this story and the collection in general is the humor. The self-deprecating kind (“How could I ever have pretended to myself that I don’t know what tube socks are?! Nobody can’t know what tube socks are! They’re sock tubes”). The wild-analogy kind (“the hours parade by me, icy and knowing, like competitors in a beauty contest”). And the brilliant observation kind (the narrator of “Rafe’s Coat” compares going on first dates with “having to slog through those statistics courses in college before being allowed to register for Abnormal Personality”).
The title of the collection applies to all the stories, because the characters seem like the world they are made to live in is foreign and confusing. But the book could also be called “Flotsam,” the title of the first story. In that story, Charlotte remembers a time in her life when she “had strained to adhere to the slippery requirements of distant authorities,” when she was like the girls she encountered in a restaurant many years later, who “radiated a self-conscious, helpless daring, as if they had been made to enter some baffling contest and all eyes were upon them.”
Most of the story takes place in that time when Charlotte floated around without any directive of her own, pulled by other people’s gravity, first her boyfriend Robert’s and then her roommate Cinder’s. It is one of the only stories in the collection in which the narrator experiences a full turnaround, an epiphany after which nothing is ever the same, when she decides to stop being flotsam.
Other characters also show an alarming, though sometimes deadpan and whimsical, passivity, too. For instance, the narrator of “Days” remembers when she was thirteen and a stranger put his hand up her skirt on the train. She “just sat there, afraid of hurting his feelings in case he hadn’t noticed where his hand was, or had a good reason for having put it there.”
There is something so authentic, feminine, and scary about this lack of response that makes me want to buy a copy of this book for every thirteen-year-old girl in America (so they can vicariously experience “Flotsam’s” epiphany and decide not to be flotsam). I’d also like to buy a book for their parents. And everyone else. Because Transactions in a Foreign Currency, besides being a wild ride of daring, playful, and funny language, jolts us out of our normal taken-for-granted lives and reminds us of the wonder we had when we were young, when we lived every moment as if it were indecipherable, when we couldn’t shake our consciousness that the world is a strange place.