I hated having to open with a question about Trump, but it was a inevitable—Trump is everywhere. My meeting with Deborah Eisenberg was on the day the president awkwardly attempted to walk back comments he made during his summit with Putin in Helsinki, in which he cast doubt, yet again, on the findings of American intelligence agencies about Russia’s election interference. I had to ask Eisenberg how Trump managed to turn up in her new collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, out in September from Ecco. These stories were written before the 2016 election, but Trump somehow wormed his way into them. His assertion that “I have the best words” serves as an epigraph to the masterful and formally inventive story “Merge”—a tale of love and missing persons built around a series of cryptic picture postcards. More obliquely, the dark American mood cast by his presidency hovers over many of these pieces, which Eisenberg wrote during the past 12 years, as though they knew what was about to happen.
“The preconditions for Trump had been there long before Trump,” Eisenberg says. “He has this dazzlingly appalling personality. One is hypnotized by his personality, and so much is happening that it’s impossible to keep track of one catastrophe after another.”
Eisenberg claims not to be political “in any sense that people usually mean by that word.” She means that she doesn’t consciously intend to write stories of political protest. “I’m an aesthete,” she adds. But her fiction is decidedly realist, even as it obsesses over the absurdities of human relations, and her stories never fail to take the pulse of the times in which they are set. Her previous collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (FSG, 2006), took readers on an uneasy tour of post-9/11 America. This one shows us the world that Trump was able to overrun, enumerating those troubling preconditions.
And so, with plenty of humor mixed in, Your Duck Is My Duck is, among other things, a haunting survey of recent events. Eisenberg broadly writes about two types: young people, mostly in their 20s, who look ahead into an uncertain future, and older people, just past or well past their prime, who look back at the preceding decades, wondering how they got here.
“It’s been a way for me to think about how we’re living and the shortsightedness of much of human behavior,” Eisenberg says. One of the delightful and profound paradoxes of her fiction is that it takes a long view of that shortsightedness, illuminating its lasting effects on individuals, on culture, and on society at large.
The title story, for instance, follows a female painter who has lost her way in her work and stopped painting. She meets a wealthy couple at a party, Ray and Christa, who are patrons of the arts and who, it turns out, have bought her best painting, Blue Hill, from the painter’s ex. They invite her to their tropical estate—“There’s plenty of room, and you can paint,” they say. “It’s a great place to work, everyone says so, really serene. The light is great, the vistas are great.”
When painter arrives, she finds their paradise is really a chaotic circus; the only other artist in residence is a soul-sick satirical puppeteer. This makeshift artists’ retreat is just a way for Ray and Christa to distract one another from the shambles they’ve made of their marriage, and their very presence there has decimated the surrounding environment: Ray has bought up much of the local farmland and planted eucalyptus, a flammable crop in a combustible area, making refugees of the locals, who flee the island each night in boats, “straggling down a dirt road toward the water, hauling little carts piled with bundles of stuff.”
It’s a sideways look at the conditions created by the consolidation of wealth in the pockets of very few—an indictment, really, of the corruptions of the rich, disguised as a lighthearted tale of patrons who collect painters at parties. It turns out that Eisenberg is a political writer despite her intentions to the contrary.
In 2010, Picador published Eisenberg’s monumental Collected Stories, which gathers all four of her previous books, from Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) through Twilight of the Superheroes. But the fact that Collected Stories clocks in at just under 1,000 pages and that Your Duck Is My Duck is only her fifth book speaks to a salient detail about Eisenberg’s short stories: they’re not that short; they’re around 40 pages each at the small end and many stretch to novella length. “I have never been able to write very short fiction,” she says.
Eisenberg’s stories leap back and forth across time, often tracking seemingly unrelated lives until they begin to angle toward one another. “I think a lot of writers start with an idea and even a sort of armature, or rather, frankly, an outline, and pursue that, but I have to go in blindfolded and backward,” she says. “Most of my time is spent finding out what on Earth it is that I’m doing. A lot of the time, I’m wandering down different paths that might or might not be related, and it’s when I think the different threads begin to form a cable that a story begins to really take for me.”
What this means is that Eisenberg’s stories unfold a lot like lives: from all angles, and subject to the whims of a world that sometimes seems to play favorites among the people in it—meaning some lives are just out of luck. And though her characters feel, to the reader, like whole, real, true people, Eisenberg claims she doesn’t actually know them very well, or at least doesn’t know about their lives beyond the parts that appear in the stories. “I don’t do the kind of exercise that I think a lot of fiction writers do that’s analogous to a kind of preparatory work that many actors do: what did this person have for breakfast? and that sort of thing,” she says. “If it doesn’t pertain to what I’m interested in about the person, I couldn’t care less. It has not been an unusual experience for somebody to ask me, ‘Well, what happened after the story ended?’ And I don’t know.”
This may be the secret to the power of Eisenberg’s fiction: her work fundamentally acknowledges that most of what we know about the people we encounter is how unknowable they are—how little of their real lives is visible to us. “I never look at anybody on the subway,” she says. “I don’t look at people on the street. I’m very, very unobservant, and very, very rarely do I think, ‘Oh, I know what sort of experience that man has had today.’ ” We make all sorts of assumptions, but in the end, other people are largely inscrutable, and Eisenberg doesn’t pretend the art of realistic fiction permits the writer or reader to see every hidden thing.
But, through the sides of her eyes, Eisenberg is taking in more than she admits. “It’s a total mystery—the relationships between art and protest,” she says. “All I care about is making beautiful things, in a way, but you can’t shut this hideous, cruel, and unjust world out of your mind. That’s what’s taking up your mind most of the time.”
That’s the world of Your Duck Is My Duck: it’s cruel, yes, but also funny and full of complex people desperately searching for company and connection. They sometimes find it. And it’s our world.