My Duck is your Duck: Deborah Eisenberg
The Zen riddle which inspired the title of Deborah Eisenberg’s new book evades the grasp of reason. This is also true for the six stories in her eagerly awaited fifth collection. Slippery and elusive as a Buddhist koan, they tear through illusions of the world as reliable and unchanging.
In the title story ‘My Duck is Your Duck’ an artist narrator pines for her lover in a remote mountain retreat. She conjures him in hallucinations and delirious 3am emails. But does the man she mourns really exist? Even she is doubtful. ‘If I’d ever loved him it was the Graham of my own devising….I longed not for him but for the apparition he fell so far short of.’
Eisenberg, who lives in New York, has been hailed the chronicler of American madness. Her characters inhabit delusions ranging from love sickness and fantasy to delirium and ‘vivid punishing dreams’. The result is a tenuous grip on reality and a jittery humour. A doctor tells an insomniac to find out why she’s not sleeping. ‘What’s there to figure out?’ she snaps.
I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device,
my life. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everyone else is not sleeping.
In Eisenberg’s universe ‘reality’ is pure invention and even so called ‘realists’ have lost the plot. The band of accountants who arrive at the mountain retreat are outlandish caricatures in ‘exhaustingly playful ties’. In an unfathomable language called ‘specialised English’ they exchange anecdotes about ‘credit swaps’ and explode into ‘raucous laughter like reams of paper shredded’.
Meanwhile it is the crazy artist Amos, who turns bats into drones in eccentric puppet operas, who grasps what’s going on. He sees the exploitation of the mountain village and accurately predicts environmental disaster. No one is free from delusion but the artists are honest even in their elaborate fantasies.
‘Taj Mahal’ exposes the behind the scenes manipulations that shape reality. A group of retired actors meet for lunch to share ludicrously different accounts of the past and deconstruct the idea of themselves.
You know this business of pretending to be other people all the time is quite all right. It get’s harder to learn the lines, but at least there are lines. Pretending to be other people is fine. It’s pretending to be oneself that’s exhausting.
The story begins with a biographical extract about a long lost film director friend written by his grandson. But this fiction purporting to be truth is merely a collection of ‘patchy memories’ combined with the ‘self-flattering fantasies of a dull-witted child.’
In this wavering and capricious world, Eisenberg’s protagonists display an enormous capacity for sensitivity and suffering. The account of a teenage girl in hospital with psychosis in ‘The Third Tower’ is rendered in voluptuous prose which reads like a surrealist fable. Loving attention to detail means even a humdrum train ride is a shimmering, spiritual adventure. With a ‘slight, thrilling jolt’ her heart ‘lifts as the wheels begin to purr along the tracks.’ This febrile imagination conjures an unseen city with ‘glistening towers and monuments…magnificent shop windows, great heavy strands of gems, twinkling away on velvet’.
The young girl’s so called sickness is in fact a highly original and ecstatic encounter with language. ‘Fugitives the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror.’ Is this madness or unbounded consciousness? We are left wondering.
Eisenberg’s fiction is delicate and complex, blending the unsettling extremes of angst and sensuousness within the microcosm of a sentence. With a narrative voice ‘like a harsh silver ribbon glinting in the fleecy dark’ it is little wonder each story takes a year to craft.