It has just been announced that Deborah Eisenberg has won the 2015 PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction. She won the Rea Award in 2000 for her mastery of the short story form. Her Collected Stories, which was published in 2010, includes stories from four earlier collections: Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), All Around Atlantis (1997), and Twilight of the Superheroes (2007).
The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big”socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate.
The best stories in Eisenberg's collection Twilight of the Superheroes (2007) reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern.
In “Some Other, Better Otto,” the central character is so self-negating, so full of doubt and dubiousness that you just want to smack him. But you know he can’t help it, that of all his possible selves he cannot quite seem to find that other, better one that would make his life full and complete. However, what great short story writers like Eisenberg wisely know is that there is no unified self, only rare moments of recognition, evanescent contacts of communication.
South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said that the novel is often bound to a consistency that does not convey the true quality of human life, “where contact is more like the flash of fireflies.” Short-story writers, Gordimer says, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”
In “Like It or Not,” a divorced Midwestern high school biology teacher visits a sophisticated friend in Italy and is expertly guided about by a polished and knowledgeable European man. Like a delicate Jamesian romance, nothing much happens but much is immanent. It's not just that the man feels he is getting older or that the woman feels insecurely empty, but, rather, as the man tells a young woman they encounter in a hotel, “It’s quite mysterious, what attracts one human being to another.”
This is the kind of mystery that great short-story writers, such as Chekhov, have always struggled with. As the central character of his brilliant story “Lady with the Pet Dog” inchoately understands, people have two lives, one open and known by all who cared to know, and another life, running its course in secret.
However, when Eisenberg veers away from the secret flashes and mysterious motivations that the short story captures so delicately and moves toward the socio-political generality of the novel, she lapses into generalities.
In the title story, four young people live in a kind of “holding pattern” in a luxurious apartment in New York City. One of them draws a comic strip entitled Passivityman about a superhero indifferent to “Captain Corporation who tightens his Net of Evil around The Planet Earth.” Having lost the superpowers of their youth, they are witness to the terrorist attack on the twin towers and somehow their private lives are absorbed by the “arid wasteland of policy and strategy” and the story evaporates into abstraction and rumination.
Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her, like the namesake of the award she has most deservedly just won.