Eisenberg, Deborah 1945-
EISENBERG, Deborah 1945-
PERSONAL: Born November 20, 1945, in Chicago, IL; daughter of George (a pediatrician) and Ruth (a homemaker; maiden name, Lohen) Eisenberg; companion of Wallace Shawn (an actor and playwright), since 1973. Education: Attended Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT; New School for Social Research, B.A., 1968.
CAREER: Writer. Teacher in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program, University of Virginia; Washington University in St. Louis, Hurst Professor, 1989, and Shirley Sutton Visiting Writer, 1991; City College of New York, visiting professor, 1993-94; New York University, adjunct professor, 1995-96.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Award, 1986, 1995, and 1997; PEN Hemingway Citation, 1987; Mrs. Giles Writing Foundation Award, 1987; John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, 1987; Deutsches Academischer Austanschdienst Stipendiam, 1991; Friends of American Writers Award, 1993; Ingram Merril Foundation Award, 1993; Award for Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993; Smart Family Foundation Prize, best story in Yale Review, 1996; Rea Award for the Short Story, 2000.
Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Under the 82nd Airborne, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg (contains Transactions in a Foreign Currency and Under the 82nd Airborne), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
All Around Atlantis, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
The Twilight of the Superheroes, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, Bomb, and Yale Review.
Pastorale (play; produced in 1982 for New York's Second Stage), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1983.
Air, 24 Hours: Jennifer Bartlett (monograph), Abrams (New York, NY), 1994.
SIDELIGHTS: Deborah Eisenberg is an acclaimed writer who is probably best known, at least to the general public, for her short story collections. Transactions in a Foreign Currency, her first volume of fiction, appeared in 1986, and it immediately established Eisenberg as an accomplished, compelling storyteller. Many of the protagonists of Eisenberg's tales are, as the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani noted, "in transition, in transit or on the road—moving on or moving away from somewhere or someone." Notable in this regard are tales such as "A Lesson in Traveling Light," wherein a couple haphazardly travel across the country while living in their van; "Flotsam," in which a shy young woman abruptly travels to New York, NY and finds living quarters with a sexually outgoing woman; and "Broken Glass," in which a thirty-four-year-old woman, emotionally exhausted from tending to her dying mother, travels to an unfamiliar village in Latin America and finally manages to connect with others.
Many of Eisenberg's tales in Transactions in a Foreign Currency, while "provocative and insightful," possess undertones of unsettling anxiety. Neville Shack noted as much when he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Eisenberg's stories "suggest a mood of quiet trauma." The title tale, for example, concerns a woman who finds herself alone in an unfamiliar city after years of visiting, with her lover, a variety of locations; and in "What It Was Like, Seeing Chris," an adolescent girl, fearful that she is losing her sight, determines to experience sex.
Although the stories in Transactions in a Foreign Currency are frequently troubling, they are also often amusing. In "Days," which Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Judith Hicks Stiehm observed is "a marvelous record of advances and retreats," a woman tries to change her life by quitting smoking and joining the YMCA; and in "Rafe's Coat" the heroine, an intellectual elitist and divorcee, learns that the object of her affections and attention is actually preoccupied with a seductress on a television soap opera.
Transactions in a Foreign Currency has been roundly praised as an impressive short-story collection. Kakutani, in the New York Times, called the book "an astonishing debut," and Bob Shacochis, writing in the New York Times Book Review, deemed the volume "provocative" and added that "Eisenberg has much more to offer than the majority of writers who have ascended since the revaluation of the American story." Similarly, Terrence Rafferty wrote in Nation, "There's no telling where Eisenberg's explorations will lead her, but on the evidence of this exhilarating collection, she's already pretty far along—where others leave off, she begins." Robert Towers, meanwhile, simply reported in the New York Review of Books that "these tales … turn out to be quite entertaining" and noted that "the sensibility that permeates the best of them is wry, posthip, essentially urban, and loquacious."
Eisenberg followed the acclaimed Transactions in a Foreign Currency with Under the 82nd Airborne, another collection of characteristically amusing yet unsettling tales. Among the noteworthy stories in this volume are "The Custodian," the story of a young girl who flees her disturbing family; "Holy Week," wherein a travel writer is faced with jarring cultural differences when he takes his significantly younger girlfriend to South America; and the title tale, in which "an aging flower child" reunites in Honduras with the daughter she abandoned long ago and finds herself shamelessly rejected by her offspring and imperiled by the daughter's American boyfriend, an arms dealer. Among the enthusiasts of Under the 82nd Airborne was a Voice Literary Supplement reviewer who declared that Eisenberg's second collection constitutes "risky fiction." The reviewer added, "If [Transactions in a Foreign Currency] proved that Eisenberg is an exceptional writer, this one proves that she's an important one as well."
In 1997 Eisenberg published All Around Atlantis, hailed as "a new and stunning collection" by Paula Friedman in the Houston Chronicle. Friedman added: "Whether grimly comic or edgily somber, these stories demonstrate Eisenberg's masterful ability to develop characters not only through their speech and actions but through their silences." The stories include "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor," about a girl's disorientation in the wake of her mother's death; "Mermaids," which shows the consequences of parental indifference; and the title story, concerning the isolation of a woman who fled the Nazis in Europe, and the way her pain affects her family. "Eisenberg demonstrates an admirably acute insight into her characters' interiors and communicates the underlying depths at the bottom of the most stifling silence," concluded Friedman. "Her uncannily wise stories give haunting voice to what is often left painfully unsaid." Seattle Times reviewer also affirmed the worth of All Around Atlantis, remarking that it "so patiently and intelligently dramatizes a certain kind of 20th-century emotional displacement that the very familiarity of the characters' feelings comes as a thrilling shock."
Eisenberg is also the author of Air, 24 Hours: Jennifer Bartlett, a 1994 monograph on the contemporary American painter. Kakutani, noting similarities between Eisenberg's and Bartlett's work, affirmed in the New York Times, "Both have looked at the mundane transactions of daily life from a slightly askew vantage point that lends their work an edgy sense of humor." Kakutani added that Air, 24 Hours casts "new light" on Bartlett's paintings, thus "enabling us to understand the source of the tension … that animates her best work."
Commenting on her writing process in a Beatrice interview with Ron Hogan, Eisenberg revealed: "I wish I were faster, and more fluent, that I knew much sooner what I was going for. I wish I were more efficient in every way. I'm just not, and I can't seem to do anything about it. It just takes many months of scrabbling around in swampy territory to figure out what it is that I want. There's always a point at which I think I have a final draft, then I read it and ask myself, 'Why have I written this?' Then I go back and write it again and that's the final draft…. In fiction, the goal changes as you're working. It's very elastic, and I think your shortcomings and incapacities are your friends in fiction. They teach you both what you can't do and what you can do. If you can't do such-and-such a thing you're trying to do, you find yourself pushed into doing something you can do which you didn't even recognize as a possibility."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, fourth series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Artforum International, November, 1995, Lisa Liebmann, review of Air, 24 Hours: Jennifer Bartlett, p. S9.
Booklist, November 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Air, 24 Hours: Jennifer Bartlett, p. 447; August, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 1877.
Entertainment Weekly, March 13, 1992, L. S. Klepp, review of Under the 82nd Airborne, p. 46; February 19, 1993, review of Under the 82nd Airborne, p. 56; October 10, 1997, Megan Harlan, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 87.
Houston Chronicle, December 14, 1997, Paula Friedman, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 25.
Independent (London, England), April 2, 1998, Christie Hickman, "Where Brevity Meets Profundity: From Waitress to Doyenne of the American Short Story," p. 4; April 21, 1998, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 2.
Library Journal, January, 1997, Jo Manning, review of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, p. 151; August, 1997, Reba Leiding, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 137.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 9, 1986, pp. 3, 8.
Nation, May 10, 1986, pp. 664-666.
Newsweek, June 2, 1986, p. 72.
New Yorker, May 15, 2000, John Lahr, review of The Designated Mourner, p. 88.
New York Review of Books, June 26, 1986, pp. 32-33.
New York Times, March 5, 1986, p. C25; December 8, 1995, p. C31.
New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1986, p. 19; February 9, 1992, Nancy Sharkey, "Courting Disaster," p. 11.
Observer, March 8, 1998, Kate Kellaway, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 17.
People, April 14, 1986, Ralph Novak, review of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1991, review of Under the 82nd Airborne, p. 18; December 30, 1996, review of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, p. 53; July 7, 1997, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 47.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 5, 1997, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 1.
Scotsman, April 18, 1998, Sue Wilson, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 14.
Seattle Times, September 28, 1997, review of All Around Atlantis, p. N2.
Time, April 14, 1986, review of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, p. 95; September 15, 1997, R. Z. Sheppard, review of All Around Atlantis, p. 108.
Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 1986, p. 733.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 7, 1993, p. 8.
Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1992, p. 13.
Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2000, Amy Gamerman, review of The Designated Mourner, p. A24.
Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1986, p. 8.
Beatrice, http://www.beatrice.com/ (January 21, 2003), Ron Hogan, interview with Deborah Eisenberg.*