The waifs in Deborah Eisenberg's short stories are trumpet-tongued. The negative capability could crack a wall. When it is well-focused, it opens in a reader--tougher material, generally--awed and disconcerting fissures. Other times, it fizzles into a discouraged gray dust.
Eisenberg's characters are women, young or into their early 30s. Men happen to them in unsatisfactory ways. Some are wimpy. Others are clever and complex versions of the handsome stranger of the romances, with body hair that is golden or sometimes dark. All of them are misconstrued events, alluring but invariably damaging objects stumbled against in the dark. Their touch deteriorates, like boot-tracks on permafrost. More generally, life deteriorates; it is an unfavorable wind in the teeth of which the protagonists set their sails at a variety of failing angles.
Eisenberg's strength is her ability to observe these doomed maneuvers. The question of where her characters are going can seem unimportant. We know them by the perfection with which they fall.
"What It Was Like, Seeing Chris" is an adolescent's unhappy love story, with a Salingerian balance of pain and acquired insight. Laurel comes into New York once a month from her prosperous suburban home to see an eye doctor. At a cafe near the doctor's office, she meets Chris, a beautiful young man who hangs out with a bevy of sophisticated New York types. He treats her with avuncular kindness, but she is utterly in love and pushes things to a disastrous weekend. He turns out to be no golden hero but emotionally impotent, at least, and perhaps gay.
Laurel's pain and discovery are set down so freshly as to seem almost joyous. She exchanges woman-to-woman confidences with a schoolmate, who counsels her, in touching pseudo-sophistication, to attend her rendezvous without underwear. Their talks are held on the swings in their grammar school's playground, as if to keep one foot dragging in a reassuring past.
The first tentative meetings with Chris are a splendid portrait of a fledgling falling from the nest. For an adolescent, to address the outside world directly is to grow up. "Sometimes when Chris said 'You' to me I would turn red, as if he had used some special word. And I could hardly say 'You' to him. It seemed amazing to me sometimes when I was talking to Chris that a person could just walk up to another person and say 'You.' "
Elegantly told--only Laurel's parents are portrayed as too heavy-handedly indifferent--the story gains urgency from what turns out to be more than a background detail. Laurel's visits to the eye doctor are not a plot gimmick. She is going blind.
Contrasting with these layered and complex effects, "Days" is altogether unbuttoned and winning. It is the diary of a nervous breakdown, told in terms of the physical fitness craze. The narrator is under some unspecified cloud, though men are clearly responsible.
To get over it, she goes to the YMCA to swim and run. Or rather, she tries to. In the spirit of Renata Adler's "Speedboat," her journal is a marvelous record of advances and retreats, of imaginary threats and real difficulties. How do you buy jogging shoes? How do you organize your clothes in the locker? How do you deal with fellow joggers who make casual remarks, each of which must be examined for hidden meanings. She worries that people seem to take showers at different velocities. Her friends' reassurances trouble her. "Sometimes it seems to me that there is a growing number of women, and that I am not among them," she muses.
Most of the other stories are told laconically, with the protagonists thinking and speaking in muffled tones, isolated from their own feelings. They reveal themselves by unplanned and only partly under-stood outbursts. Their discouraged and confused heroines, their shadowy and difficult men, take on a certain saneness. In "Flotsam," the narrator tries to get over the habit of apologizing for herself. Her husband, fed up, has all but thrown her out. She goes out with an attractive Cuban but refuses to admit the pleasure in it. At the end, she rips up her husband's photograph, but we get no assurance that this will work.
Eisenberg's prose constantly is springing discoveries. Taken together, though, many of the stories tend to be variations on the same numb emotional situations.
As an artist's larger vision, this can be something of a hunger diet. But it is premature to conclude that it is the author's larger vision.
"Transactions in a Foreign Currency" collects Eisenberg's first published work. First novels once were about growing up. Now they tend to be short stories, and they are about withering up. I think that the territory has become unpromising and overworked. But if you have a front door--a few great writers don't--it is natural to start with what lies outside it.
But perhaps, what is most important to say is that, inside this immediately adjacent territory, Eisenberg can do some astonishing things. If her spirit turns out to possess the vitality of her prose and of her eyesight, she is likely to end up a long way from her front door.