Words at first fail us, when events are too extreme to be caught in subtle nets. Literary language reaches for outrage and finds hollowed-out forms; straining to be adequate to horror, it is all too easy to sound schmaltzy, or sanctimonious, or quivery with frisson. So the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection approaches its subject with reticence. The narrative, shared between Lucien, the owner of a New York art gallery, and his nephew Nathaniel, is assembled warily, piece by piece, each separated on the page from the others and subtitled (‘Context’, ‘Opportunism’, ‘Continuity’), each in some sense beginning over again the effort to arrive at the thing that happened.
Nathaniel and his friends witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers from the apartment in downtown Manhattan they had been subletting through the good offices of Uncle Lucien. The apartment, glamorous far beyond their modest means, used to have ‘the most incredible view on the planet’: ‘Sitting out on the terrace had been like looking down over the rim into a gigantic glass of champagne.’ What seemed like the most wonderful luck was transformed that day into something painfully equivocal. It had been some time before they could sit on the terrace without having to run inside to be sick, or bursting into tears, or wondering what kind of debris was settling into their drinks. The event itself is glimpsed out of the corner of the story’s eye: ‘Something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited’; ‘It’s unclear what they are, in fact, looking at.’ Lucien first saw it on television; then he saw the smoke in the sky. The story (and Eisenberg’s whole collection) is a provisional report from a city and a country changed radically, suddenly, in ways that are still very difficult to read, or to write. The centre of the story can’t be the destruction of the Twin Towers, or its ongoing consequences in Afghanistan and Iraq, because these things are a blasted emptiness: the story shapes itself tentatively around an absence, and in doing so, begins to give the absence shape.
In August 1914, Henry James wrote to a friend, the novelist Rhoda Broughton: ‘The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara – yet what a blessing we didn’t know it. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way.’ The same idea reverberates in Eisenberg’s story. The planes that brought down the towers have torn through a curtain, ‘painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city’. The past wasn’t safe after all, wasn’t what it appeared; the event contaminates in retrospect.
Three years on, Lucien concedes that the curtain is fixed up again, and that daily life is back to normal (the phrase in Eisenberg’s story can only be expressed in italics). But ‘you can’t help sort of knowing that what you’re seeing is only the curtain.’ Eisenberg is very good, very funny, on the gradual stages of that back to normal. As time passes after the event, for instance, people’s dogs seem to change. ‘For a couple of months everyone was walking cute, perky things. Then Lucien saw snarling hounds everywhere and the occasional boa constrictor draped around its owner’s shoulders. After that, it was tiny, trembling dogs that travelled in purses and pockets.’
What is revealed when the curtain is torn is much more complex than just threat and fear, although of course they are there. Eisenberg’s curtain, like James’s waterfall, suggests a culpable delusion in having ever taken the painted image for reality. How oblivious they were, how parochial, and how mistaken. Eisenberg’s intelligent New Yorkers can’t forgive themselves: the disgust they feel might be less at what happened than at themselves for not having imagined it was possible. It would be infantile to want to climb back inside innocence, once it’s been seen for what it was. In a brilliant moment, Eisenberg describes how the bars of New York have filled up again with crowds who at first glance look like the same party people as before. But they’re not, they’re a slightly-off simulacrum: ‘True, it looked something like the New York that existed before all this began, but Lucien remembered, and he could see: the costumes were not quite right, the hairstyles were not quite right, the gestures and the dialogue were not quite right.’
One of Eisenberg’s triumphs in this story is to express her judgment of America’s culpability (or rather Lucien’s judgment, and Nathaniel’s) with the right nuance, in a context in which truth, and one’s ethical adjustment in relation to it, seems to depend on tact, on finding exactly the right words. Of course we know who is directly to blame for the attack on the Twin Towers: in the story it almost goes without saying. But Eisenberg’s ‘populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred’, which is as near as she gets to naming them, aren’t easily accessible from inside this urbane, ironic worldview; so it has to be in their own lives, and in America, that Lucien and Nathaniel find the meaning of what has happened.
Nathaniel isn’t really rich by Manhattan standards: he has a job in the architectural division of the subway system and spends ‘his salaried hours in a cinder-block office building, poring over catalogues of plumbing fixtures’; he was lucky to get to live in one of the delicious spaces the rich had made. Lucien hasn’t been selling oil or arms, or exploiting anybody; he has sold only art. But their innocence turned out to be not quite as transparent as they might have hoped. Lucien feels ashamed for having lived so hopefully.
A deep embarrassment has been stalking him. Every time he lets his guard down these days, there it is. Because it’s become clear: he and even the most dissolute among his friends have glided through their lives on the assumption that the sheer fact of their existence has in some way made the world a better place. As deranged as it sounds now, a better place. Not a leafy bower, maybe, but still, a somewhat better place – more tolerant, more amenable to the wonderful adventures of the human mind and the human body, more capable of outrage against injustice . . . one has clung to the belief that the sun shining inside one’s head is evidence of sunshine elsewhere.
The view over New York even before the Twin Towers came down wasn’t really ‘the most incredible view on the planet’; there are other views and other places (the hyperbole is ironic, but it’s not an irony that looks outwards). And the plot to bring down the Twin Towers wasn’t really made by vague ‘populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by’ (it’s Lucien’s formulation, but Eisenberg doesn’t offer any other version): that’s too simple, doesn’t acknowledge the lived complexity and multifariousness of politics and people in those parts of the world the conspirators came from – particular men, sponsored by particular extremist groups with a particular history. There is something parochial about these New Yorkers even in their self-searching self-laceration. But then the point of the story – and its method – is precisely that anyone’s consciousness is constructed out of what’s local, what’s near at hand.
A dark stream of pessimism flows into the narrative through the tear in the curtain. Lucien’s mind turns to ordinary private griefs: the death of his wife Charlie, his own old age. His ageing is described in similar language to James’s Niagara. ‘Here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. Or at least struggling desperately to balance on the brink. Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.’ The way Eisenberg weaves together perceptions of the two kinds of suffering – the inevitable-ordinary and the contingent-exceptional – suggests how they change each other, how public context alters the timbre and the scope of private sorrows. The story suggests that the public disaster in New York released the reserves of an old-world pessimism that had somehow been disallowed amid so much opportunity, so much pleasure, so much gratitude for those things.
But Eisenberg is careful not to offer Pollyannaish consolations, not to try to turn what happened into an opportunity for self-improvement or self-knowledge. Part of the integrity of the story, and its scrupulous ethical positioning, has to do with the steady way it hates the disaster, and what it has unleashed in America. ‘One kept wishing for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real – the intended – future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day to not have happened.’ The horror that erupts ‘like an inexhaustible geyser’ from the severed towers seems to begin with the planes, but doesn’t end there.
When the smoke lifted, all kinds of other events, which had been prepared behind a curtain, too, were revealed. Flags waved in the brisk air of fear, files were demanded from libraries and hospitals, droning helicopters hung over the city, and heavily armed policemen patrolled the parks. Meanwhile, one read that executives had pocketed the savings of their investors and the pensions of their employees.
None of the other stories in the collection addresses the attack on the Twin Towers explicitly, but all of them seem haunted by the changes it has made in American consciousness. ‘The Flaw in the Design’ is perhaps an effort to pursue the missing part of the indictment in ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’. Instead of conscience-tormented intelligent New York liberals, Eisenberg addresses herself to Americans she obviously finds less congenial: not those who’ve been foolishly believing that ‘the sheer fact of their existence has in some way made the world a better place,’ but the kind who’ve been heedlessly chewing up the world in pursuit of corporate profit. The husband is whisky-drinking, hostile, bullish, with friends on trial for corruption. The wife, who has a privileged past, is compliant, stricken when her husband reproaches her for forgetting to buy coffee; she’s dreaming away her life, evading in introspection the large public realities that fund her hyper-sensibility and her secrets. The only ‘real’ thing in her experience is the afternoon she’s just spent in a hotel room with a stranger whose name she chooses not to know. Their son’s childhood has been spent in a succession of distant postings where his contact with the everyday life of Nigeria, Burma, Ecuador has been minimal and artificial. At tea one afternoon in a luxury hotel in a city somewhere, curtains were pulled – curtains again – to shut out the horrors of a bomb in the street outside.
Now back in America, the son – teenage and home from private school – refuses to eat meat, walks his fingers in the blood of their lamb chops at the dinner table, berates them with the evil that they do. His mother understands his feeling that ‘he’s lashed to the controls of some machine that eats up whatever is in its path,’ but she thinks he’ll grow out of it. The tone of this story isn’t as secure as that of ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’: there’s something lurid in the characterisations, and it’s difficult in particular to know quite how to read the boy’s outbursts, which make him priggish and self-dramatising – though perhaps that’s Eisenberg’s point too.
In between these two stories, which explicitly explore the labyrinths of a new politics of consciousness in America, there are others less obviously engaged but just as interesting. ‘Window’ is an account of the appeal of a new puritanism in the form of gun culture machismo and a retreat from city life. In ‘Like it or Not’, a sensitive middle-aged American travels in Italy with a sophisticated Italian art connoisseur. Wherever Eisenberg turns her attention she searches out the conscientious unease beneath surface attention, and applies herself to the ways the large outlines of history and power relations manifest themselves in the detail of daily lives. This is her seventh collection of stories: it’s a shame that none of the others is available in the UK.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.