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.

There’s something piquant about the fact that Deborah Eisenberg is now published in this country by Granta, which represents that picaresque ethos, and which has so effectively opened the borders between fiction and non-fiction. For her work is crossing over in the opposite direction, back towards invention. In the opening story, ‘The Girl who Left Her Sock on the Floor’, adolescent Francie is stunned by her mother’s sudden death while she’s away at school, and even more by the discovery that she has after all a living father (he had in her mother’s account died in an accident before she was born). As she waits for him at his New York apartment, she sees him in her mind’s eye coming home from work in a last moment of freedom and childlessness:

He might be walking up the street this very second. Stopping to buy a newspaper.

  She closed her eyes. He fished in his pocket for change, and then glanced up sharply. Holding her breath, Francie drew herself back into the darkness. It’s your imagination, she promised; he was going to have to deal with her soon enough – no sense making him see her until he actually had to.

This isn’t quite a metafictional gesture, Francie playing author – the writing is too direct and rooted in ordinariness for that – but it’s not far off. Francie has become a new person, who’s neither child nor adult for the moment, but somewhere off in another dimension. The sock she left on the floor only days ago will never be picked up.

The three Latin American stories are also about rites of passage. These focus on Americans adventuring into foreign countries too close to home for comfort – the central characters are innocents abroad, tourists, artists, voluntary exiles, who find themselves confronted by other Americans, the shady fixers, dealers and diplomats who have long colonised this other new world from behind the scenes. In ‘Across the Lake’, we follow scared but fascinated Rob, for whom travel is a kind of moral mission of self-discovery: ‘There was something – well, something correct about being where he was.’ Rob takes one journey too far, to a village where civil war is waged each night after most visitors have departed, at the ‘end of the trail, where the world trickled out into the mud’. Death is just around the corner. But not for him: his adventure is to fall into bed, in an ecstasy of revulsion, with the sweaty, sexy, contemptuous (but American) girlfriend of his temporary mentor Mick, who trades in textiles and anything else that’s going. So Rob meets real life at several removes, and meanwhile the war trickles out into the mud. Rob is rather like the student in Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America, whose formative experience (this was in postwar Europe) was cleaning the shit out of the shared lavatory in his Paris lodgings.

The wider resonances of stories like this one are fleeting and unstated – and it’s perhaps only because the other stories set in Central and South America are more explicit that you start to see these adventures as part of a pattern of corrupted ideals and disappointment. In ‘Tlaloc’s Paradise’ the sculptor Jean went into exile during McCarthyism, in search of the exiles’ haven the United States itself was once upon a time, ‘Because a place – I mean, what is that? A place. What you leave, what you go to, here or there, “home” or “foreign”.’ But place does matter; as she warms to her theme, she produces a hellish map of the afterlife, the expatriate world ‘down here’, ‘Pretending ... they were born in Mexico, or that they were in this or that resistance. Oh, I mean there are bound to be a few old Jews, and a few old déclassé aristos ... but ... whoever those people were once, they’re all sitting together now, missing the same real pastries, the same real streets.’

Eisenberg’s insistence on the short story’s ineluctable present – ‘every moment is all the things that have happened before and all the things that are going to happen’ – creates in its own way a dreadfully vivid sense of history, and of incongruous human comedy. In another version of exile hell, a pianist called Shapiro, a one-time prodigy whose career is on the skids, finds that his invitation to play at a lavishly-funded Arts Festival somewhere in South America is just diplomatic window-dressing. ‘We’re hoping,’ says the man from the Embassy, ‘the festival will help to ... rectify the perception that we’re identified with the military here.’ As if by bad magic, the acoustics are hopeless: ‘sound sloshed and bulged, gummed up in clumps, liquefied’. The orchestra ‘from a small nearby dictatorship’ is in panic, and Shapiro recognises that the piece, one of his party pieces, by a silver-haired, cosmopolitan local composer, is ‘a great, indestructible, affirming block of suet’. As he plays it, better than before (‘but it made no difference – no difference at all’), his vocation falls in ruins about him.

Shapiro’s horrid epiphany is foreshadowed in a marvellous description of the site of his humiliation: ‘Like all Arts Centres ... though futuristic in design, it had a look of ancient decay, being left over from a period when leisure time and economic abundance were considered an imminent menace.’ In this city ‘where children, bloated with hunger, played in the gutter, their eyes dreamy and wild with drugs’, the Arts Centre is an obscenity. As a monument to a future that didn’t happen, it stands for Shapiro’s own failure, and his loss of his last refuge as an artist – the saving belief that in your work you can somehow evade venal behaviour and power-plays. Eisenberg, I suspect, shares that questionable conviction, but only if you go in for art on the most modest scale – no stately pleasure domes, no ‘affirming blocks of suet’, instead oblique, almost inarticulate insights that can’t survive long, and usually come after the event: ‘By the time you see there’s a decision to be made, you can be pretty sure it’s a decision you already have made,’ thinks ex-addict Rosie, that wise child.

These exes and orphans, traders in dreams, tourists and adventurers are the inheritors of long traditions of exile and forgetting. In the title story Anna, the book’s only first-person narrator, the bitter, funny and garrulous daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish mother, recalls with incredulity, in middle age, how easy it was, growing up American in the Forties and Fifties, to grow up without a history: ‘Did I think I was descended from ... pilgrims? From a distinguished line of, what – cowboys?’ Her beautiful Bohemian mother Lili survived the camps, the only one of her family, and – like their neighbours – suppresses the past, encountering it only in nightmares and occasional black depressions, when her room becomes the forbidden antechamber to another world. Lili and her friend and ally, the poet Sándor, along with suitors and passers-through, make a kind of family, though Anna is on one side of an ocean of time, they on another – ‘I was the American on the premises!’ Sándor, ‘sitting outside on the benches with the other déclassé Europeans, gossiping, reminiscing, playing chess ... coming back in to write, for a few hours, in a language few around him could even read’, is also a part of this America, its reminder of what can now be forgotten. But all of this changes after 1956, when a new wave of Hungarian refugees arrives, among them the brilliant, hungry, ambitious young scholar Peter, who’ll become briefly Lili’s lover, Anna’s homework coach and Sándor’s interpreter to the West. It’s to Peter, himself an elderly and distinguished intellectual these days, that Anna imagines addressing the angry monologue we’re hearing.

On the face of things this is a story about getting the past back. Peter made a link: ‘There you were, conducting Sándor and Lili back and forth between me and the world that had more than wished them dead so long before. And how eager they were to see that world.’ If Anna jealously resented him, that surely was part of growing up, of reluctantly acquiring a sense of her heritage and history? But she teases out a very different sub-plot: what Peter gave her was an insight into the Fifties America of the Cold War, with its vague and insidious version of totalitarianism. This was ‘one of those moments ... when even writing as rarified as Sándor’s was likely to be hijacked ... Every poor schmock seemed to be out there scrounging up some piece of art with which to beat up some ideological adversary or intellectual competitor ... something that could be said to represent something or other.’ There follows a nastily accurate Fifties list (from psychoanalysis and Marxism to Jewish, Christian or Buddhist acceptance). What Peter made Sándor into (building the foundations of his own career at the same time) was ‘a bastion against Communism? Oh, please, Peter. For shame.’ And so the other past is betrayed, not because Sándor was a Communist, but because he was a poet of small pieces (‘lyric, glimmering salvagings’) from a lost time.

In all this it’s the word ‘represent’ that eventually stands out as the source of shame. Jewish writers have a long history of dubious relations with this word – which makes even the artist, especially the modern artist, into a character in someone else’s story. It was a role shared with and inherited by African-Americans, and now with Asian Americans. In the marvellous lectures collected in Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison talks about the way in which black characters in classic American writing have had to carry the burden of the author’s symbolism. How much more galling, when you are a writer yourself, being made to tote that bale in some cultural-historical myth. Well, Jewishness has mostly lost its place in the script, in that sense. And it’s from this new position of not having to carry the representative meanings that Eisenberg writes. But she does it with all the pride and deliberation of someone who has chosen it herself, this laying down of the burden of having to be significant. Anna asks herself, in the middle of her attack on the opportunistic Peter, for his recruitment of Sándor, whether she really thinks that it’s better to be ‘eternally voiceless, adrift’? No, obviously, and yet – ‘If no one was listening, at least no one misheard you. If what you made was of no value to anyone, no one stole it and went running off, no one bothered to colonise it and set up little flags.’ Sándor’s last place, the space he made for himself on the page, has been invaded by his fan, who has made him part of the canon, and broken his silence.

The story in which this is contained has a kind of black hole of its own, elliptical and obscure, where one of Lili’s men gets arrested on the premises (‘the uniforms, the truncheons, the sound of Voiteck’s head as it hit the wall’), because he has gone berserk over some reference to Gypsies, or is it the Tarot? The absence of explanation pays its own tribute to silence. Eisenberg’s ideal story would probably be one which made commentary impossible, simply stunned or bamboozled its reader into giving up on interpretation. It wouldn’t be like anything else, it would be ineluctably particular, saying only what it said. Thinking about that child’s question that causes so much trouble, Where did I come from?, Anna says (inaudibly) to Peter that ‘children are philosophers and theoreticians and seers only by default; they’re so ignorant they have to be philosophers and theoreticians and seers.’ In another story here, ‘Mermaids’, a young girl called Kyla meditates on memory: ‘at the time something was happening, of course, you didn’t know what it was like ... It really wasn’t like anything – it was just whatever it was, and there was never a place in your mind of the right size and shape to put it. But afterwards the thing fit exactly into your memory as if there had always been a place – just right, waiting for it.’ Short-story epiphanies work like this for Eisenberg, they shouldn’t be carried away, because they only work in this order, in this moment. So if I say she’s a bit like James, a touch reminiscent of Mary McCarthy, and even more of Carson McCullers at some moments, I’m reading against the grain of her texts. It’s hard to think of another contemporary short-story writer who invests so much in the form’s utopian possibilities: its own no place.