YOUR DUCK IS MY DUCK
By Deborah Eisenberg
226 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. $26.99
In her fifth collection of short stories, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” Deborah Eisenberg speaks in the voice of a despairing god: wry, cool, resonant, capable of three dimensions of irony at once, besotted with the beauty and tragedy of this darkening planet of ours. Every story in the new collection — oh, who am I kidding? every story Deborah Eisenberg has ever written — holds at least one image that can knock you to your knees. The voice of a driver is, to a sleepy passenger, “a harsh silver ribbon glinting in the fleecy dark”; a black and twisting tornado crossing a field is “like a dancer filled with God.” Eisenberg has an attentiveness so radical that her stories often feel to the reader the way that sung lieder in her story “Recalculating” seem to be “of a loveliness so distilled and potent” that a character feels as though he is being poisoned.
Beauty that spreads through the mind and lingers there in alterations so deep they’re almost physical: This is what I love most about Eisenberg’s work. I crave her voice in the years between books so much that I am almost continually rereading a story of hers: “Days” from “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” “Mermaids” from “All Around Atlantis,” “Some Other, Better Otto” from “Twilight of the Superheroes,” and on and on. Eisenberg is a gorgeous writer of lines and dialogue and paragraphs, all the artistry in the marks upon the page, but even more deeply — and much more interestingly — she is an artist of the unsaid: the unacknowledged silences in a family, the imaginative volta between seemingly disparate images, the barely intimated strangenesses of the world. Nature abhors a vacuum, they say, and into the spaces Eisenberg deliberately leaves open, the reader’s own terrors and interpretations can seep in.
In the title story of her new collection, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” there is an almost unbearable tension between the bright, sharp surface and the great glimpsed beasts moving in the deeps. The story is funny, ostensibly about a rich couple in an unhappy marriage who host artists at their paradisal island. The narrator is a burnt-out painter whose work has recently been acquired by the rich couple, and the only other artist in residence is a puppeteer who is working on an operatic puppet show that is obviously critical of the hosts, called “The Hand That Feeds You.” It is all very light and funny, but between the lines live myriad other issues, obliquely observed: the way unchecked capitalism ruins us all; the way an artist is made culpable by accepting aid given by corrupt sources; the way soulless corporations have turned themselves into a higher power in our society, taking the place of God; the way climate change is exacerbated by the greed and meddling of the stupidly rich.
The verdant island of little farms that the narrator so admires is in the process of being destroyed, first by two years of rain so intense that the crops fail, then drought so severe that the new plantings are blown away, then the abandoned farms are bought up by the host, whose new plantings of eucalyptus catch fire in lightning storms and burn everything down, including the remaining farms, which makes food prices skyrocket and drives the indigenous population to flee en masse. At last, when the eucalyptus trees are torn out, the bluffs erode and the very last farms are covered in mudslides. This history of disaster is made more devastating by the fact that Eisenberg manages to give the reader this history in fragments, as though from a muttered phone conversation from another room just audible under the dinner party conversation you’ve been having with the funniest people you know. There is a deep moral resonance in the dual voice: The title of the story comes from a koan the rich capitalist cites for his corporate peons, something about a Zen master, his disciple and a duck trapped in a bottle. He finishes the story by laying out the master’s lesson: “It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem,” he says, meaning that he won’t bestir himself to act for good if he’s not morally culpable in the problem. But the title says otherwise: Your duck is my duck. We are all culpable. We are all responsible for one another.