13 May 2006

Twilight of the Endings

From a review by Jonathan Dee in the June Harper's of Deborah Eisenberg's new story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes:
"Sometimes, when I write a story," Eisenberg once said, "what I want the story to do is to convey a very specific and usually very peculiar feeling. And the narrative is the conveyance. That is, in some cases, I'm not terribly interested in the narrative itself; I've simply chosen that particular narrative because of what I think it can do." The notion of narrative not as something to be worked out on its own terms but as a "conveyance" of a particular feeling is a technique that could prove disastrously precious in the hands of a lesser writer, and it goes a long way toward explaining one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of her work: the fact that her endings tend not to end much of anything at all. They seem simultaneously well honed and arbitrary. "Some Other, Better Otto" ends, quite hauntingly, on almost the same note of agony with which it began -- as if to say that the cost to Otto of preserving that emotional distance from his family is paid continually and is beyond the reach of any narrative machinery to resolve. "Window" tells the story of an abused woman who has grown so attached to the young son of her abuser that she kidnaps him and hits the road; no authorial signal is given as to when or how badly this flight might end. "The Flaw in the Design" is a spooky portrait of a suburban family on a precipice: the son, whose adolescent acting-out seems to have crossed the border into serious depression, hates the father, who may be implicated in the financial wrongdoing of an associate now on trial; the mother, when not assuring them both that everything will be fine, is picking up strangers for sex. That precipice is where Eisenberg leaves them. What keeps these stories from insufficiency is that they do not just name-check the characters' troubles (gay ex-husband, obnoxious family); they make the effort to build these emotional conditions from the ground up, so that by the time Eisenberg is done, the reader has internalized her own conviction that the intensity of these particular states of mind would only be diminished by any sort of resolution that might be grafted onto them.

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