he wry, singular stories of the US short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg aren’t easy to pin down. Temporally fluid, chatty without being workaday, they don’t rely on plot yet aren’t person-has-thoughts narratives either and are often built from a dizzying array of moving parts. If there’s a secret, she isn’t giving it away, telling interviewers that she considers writing a “holy” act not to be “approached casually”, but also that she writes by “just sitting down and seeing what my hand does”.
The pieces in her new book, her first in 12 years, immerse us in a range of perspectives, from that of a dog-owning widow in need of home help to a schoolboy holding tight at bedtime after learning about terrestrial rotation. Eisenberg trusts us to stay afloat: when the artist narrator of the title story falls in with a wealthy couple, Ray and Christa, who recently bought one of her paintings, she thinks: “They owned Blue Hill? I had given Blue Hill to Graham”, telling us on the same page about her day job at “Howard’s photo studio”, with nothing said by way of introduction to either name.
Wealth, and its testy relationship to creative endeavour, generates much fear and loathing here, as well as warm satire (“I can’t explain this,” someone says of a crowded restaurant. “Usually it’s so civilised. It must have got written up somewhere”). The title story, one of several pieces that pit performers against money men, feeds off the contrast between the narrator and her hosts, of whom she’s sceptical while enjoying their hospitality; at one point, Christa excuses Ray’s absence by saying he’s “buying something”. “A car?” the narrator asks. “Some subsidiary,” comes the reply.
Eisenberg’s characters tend to be haunted by the past, scathing about the present and fearful of the future. One narrator recalls discovering the murder of her relatives in the Holocaust; someone else says the US today is “really, truly finished”. “It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping,” an insomniac tells her doctor, refusing pills: “What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.” “Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” the doctor says.
The stories return repeatedly to the problem of language or, as one character puts it, whether “the stuff inside your head is the same as the stuff inside the world”. If The Third Tower, a dystopian tale about a teenage girl sent for psychiatric treatment to make her “recognise the confines of words”, doesn’t quite hit the mark, other yarns treat the theme more lightly: Taj Mahal opens with an excerpt from a dirt-dishing tell-all by the grandson of a famous film director, before the narration kicks in from the wounded perspective of one of the people it mentions: “What to do about all this horseshit?”
Ruminative passages soften us up for the darkly comic shock of sharp exchanges. In Merge, which contains epigraphs from Noam Chomsky and Donald Trump (“I know words. I have the best words”), an irrigation logistics CEO loses his cool when his son, Keith, requests a gap year: “I’m sick of doing every single fucking thing for you... Get you into this school, get you into that school, send you skiing here, send you sailing there. Just like that hopeless fucking train wreck from whose dainty loins you sprang. What are you going to do if some girl gets me to leave everything to her, huh?”
Eisenberg isn’t tough going – far from it – but she defies neat summary, perhaps in part because, by her own admission, she conceives of individual stories, not collections, leaving those to editors. Now in her 70s, she’s prized across the Atlantic, but isn’t as well known in Britain, where she hasn’t had a regular publisher; here’s hoping that changes with this scintillating showcase of her one-off talent.