Hard not to be intrigued by a collection of short stories with a title like Your Duck is My Duck not to mention that cover. On closer inspection, Deborah Eisenberg turned out to be garlanded with praise from all manner of people, including a New York Times critic who described her work as ‘Shudderingly intimate and mordantly funny’ which clinched the deal for me. Her collection comprises six stories, each lengthy enough to deserve a brief synopsis of its own.
Your Duck is My Duck – Taken up by an uber rich couple she meets at a party, an artist is invited to their retreat in a small village they’ve ruined with their ill thought out schemes. She arrives to find her hosts at war with each other, oblivious to the havoc they’ve wreaked.
Taj Mahal – A group of aged movie actors are affronted by the biography of a renowned director written by his grandson, purportedly drawing on his childhood memories, but are their own as reliable as they’d like to think?
Cross Off and Move On – The death of a long lost cousin brings back memories of her irascible mother’s dislike of her father’s sisters for a middle-aged woman who remembers her aunts as nothing but kind and generous. Her own origins were a jigsaw for her to piece together, thanks to her mother’s determination to hide them.
Merge – The over-indulged Keith has been cut off from his father’s largesse and faced with real life when he meets Celeste who finds him something to do: looking out for her ageing neighbour and walking the fluffball known as Moppet. Cordis has a fascinating story if only Keith can get her to tell it. Meanwhile, a long way from home Celeste seems to be unravelling.
The Third Tower – A young woman undergoing neurological tests, finds it politic to take her cue from her consultant rather than describe what’s really in her mind.
Recalculating – Intrigued by the uncle he never met, Adam flies across the Atlantic to attend his memorial service, surprised by the elegance and sophistication of his uncle’s bohemian friends who are pleased to recognise Phillip in him
Each of these stories was a delight for me, stuffed full with acerbic observation. Several of them are darkly comic: Merge’s prefacing with two quotes, one from Noam Chomsky, the other from Donald Trump, made me laugh out loud. Eisenberg’s characters are astutely drawn and her themes – memory, ageing, family and language – intelligently explored. Her punctuation maybe a little over enthusiastic for some – commas popping up all over the place but I’m not entirely averse to that. Her stories are carefully constructed and she’s not afraid to challenge her readers – in Merge two narrative strands tease themselves apart, seeming to unravel which is a little discombobulating but strikingly effective, while The Third Tower is almost hallucinogenic in its images. As seems to be so often the case with short stories for me, it’s the writing that I most enjoyed. Here are a few choice samples:
Pretending to be other people is fine. It’s pretending to be oneself that’s exhausting. Taj Mahal
They would sit down at the bar, Mr Perfect and the girl, and the predictable theatrics would start right up, so the moment he appeared I’d resign myself to a night watching a wallet flirt with a price tag. Cross Off and Move On
Friedlander dabbled in a series of eccentric, quasi-scholarly enterprises, as only the useless child of a wealthy family can. Merge
The sights stream by out the window, wavering, not quite solid, like pictures unfurling on a bolt of printed silk. The Third Tower
It’s like a word has the same word inside it, but the one inside’s a lot bigger, and with better colours and more parts. The Third Tower
There, I hope that’s whetted your appetite.
Europa Editions: London 2019 9781787701823 219 pages Paperback