Spells of Levitation

Lorna Sage

  • All around Atlantis by Deborah Eisenberg
    Granta, 232 pp, £8.99, March 1998, ISBN 1 86207 161 6

The short story is the most popular form for people to practise on in Creative Writing workshops where the craft of making things up is meant to be passed on. Still, contemporary stories are always falling out of fiction into documentary of one sort or another – confession, travel, postcards from the front line. Deborah Eisenberg’s writing is so striking because it is impeccably, formally fictional. Her stories have epiphanies, they have closure, they have a discreet patina of style which is nearly matt, has no shiny gloss, but is nonetheless worked to a certain finish. A phrase will suddenly jump off the page – ‘the backs of ... houses, hung with a dirty lace of fire stairs’ – then retreat again into its surroundings. Her settings are sketched with great economy, but convey a vivid sense of place (she herself comes from Chicago, and lives in New York). She specialises in brief moments of stillness, when things fall into focus. Her characters are often treated to spells of levitation during which they see themselves from outside, or from the future, or from some point near the ceiling, as in those near-death experiences people report, when for a paralysed time-out-of-time you’re on the wrong side of the mirror that makes life look like itself, lifelike. Things that were obvious, ‘obvious the way air is obvious’, develop a scary, revelatory, toxic shimmer. The characters see in italics, like virgins out of Henry James, and then forget, so that we’re made to feel that only the story itself, with its irony and vertiginous impersonality, preserves their vision.

Eisenberg’s craft is underlined by the fact that she covers the same sort of ground as the life-writers: small, covert wars in Latin America, deaths in the family, conversion experiences, tourism through time. One story in this new collection, ‘Rosie Gets a Soul’, follows the rebirth of an ex-junkie, born again childlike into the world. It’s Rosie who sees the ‘dirty lace of fire stairs’, though she hasn’t recovered enough to be a first-person narrator. In fact only the title-story of the eight that make up All around Atlantis has an ‘I’, and this may signal a further shift in Eisenberg’s self-denying aesthetic, her predilection for the other view that leaves more room for the voice of the text. In her two earlier collections, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, 12 years ago and Under the 82nd Airborne in 1992, narrators were in any case regularly somersaulted outside themselves by events. The memorably mesmerised adolescent in ‘What It Was Like, Seeing Chris’ realised the absolute magic and banality of being yourself and different from everyone else, ‘because every moment is all the things that have happened before and all the things that are going to happen, and every moment is just the way those things look at one point on their way along the line.’ Even when they’re not that young, her characters sound like clever kids asking impossible questions: ‘Why – a completely primitive concept. Still, why does anybody anything, Rosie thinks.’ Eisenberg’s stories are classic in shape: they pinpoint the logic of the moment and arrange a whole life, whole ways of life sometimes, around it. So they put the formula for so much that’s most alive and representative in contemporary writing – travelling and never arriving – back into a frame.

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