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Deborah Eisenberg: City Life In The Smallest Spaces

Deborah Eisenberg is that rarest of literary birds, a dedicated writer of short stories. And she writes them distinctively, effectively and imaginatively enough to have been named a 2009 MacArthur Fellow, for, in the foundation's words, "crafting distinctive portraits of contemporary American life in tales of striking precision, fluency, and moral depth."

This month, Picador is reissuing all 27 of her published stories in what Eisenberg refers to as one "great thick book." Picador Vice President and Publisher Frances Coady championed the anthology through a protracted wait for publication rights. "Publishers and booksellers all too often regard [the short story] as a warm-up exercise for a novel," Coady says. "And Deborah Eisenberg proves just how wrong this view can be. Her prose is exquisite. She is emotionally acute. She has a passionate following and it seems a great injustice to me that her readers have not, until now, been able to find all her work in one volume."

The Collected Stoires of Deborah Eisenberg
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Eisenberg quickly deflects most praise. "How funny!" she says when it's pointed out she'd been referred to quite regularly in print as a "genius" before the MacArthur "Genius Award."

An Eisenberg storyscape is usually a city one. "I think," she says, "that people are born with an urban gene or not. And I was."

Novelist Mona Simpson agrees. "Deborah Eisenberg is consummately urban," Simpson wrote in the November 2006 issue of The Atlantic, "as nonchalantly and inadvertently sophisticated as Proust."

Here's Eisenberg's vision of New York City at night from "Twilight of the Superheroes": "The avenues and bridges slung a trembling net of light across the rivers, over the buildings ... The lights floated up and up like bubbles."

Eisenberg's characters often hang suspended in their own lives; ambivalent, undecided, worried, waiting for the other shoe to come tumbling down from the heavens. This hospital scene is from "Some Other, Better Otto":

He waited in a room with others too dazed even to note the television that hissed and bristled in front of them or to turn the pages of the sticky, dog-eared magazines they held, from which they could have learned how to be happy, wealthy, and sexually appealing; they waited, like Otto, to learn instead what it was that destiny had already handed down: bad, not that bad, very, very bad.

Deborah Eisenberg and her urban gene actually grew up in the suburbs, "where I was a weirdo ... and very conspicuous. She moved permanently to New York in her 20s, but by her mid-30s she was still just kicking around the city, enjoying life with her "boyfriend" of then and now, writer and actor Wallace Shawn. So what triggered her own writing?

"I suppose the short answer would be I stopped smoking," Eisenberg says.

Say what?

Smoking was not only enjoyable, Eisenberg explains; it was useful as a narcotic for dealing with "a certain level of rage." She took to writing stories, she says, when cigarettes were no longer an option.

A certain level of rage about what?

"Oh, who knows? I was and am completely incurious about my own psyche. Maybe I was just born enraged. At any rate there was kind of a lot of it floating around."

Which, she adds, is not a bad thing for a writer.

Indeed. But why, then, write only short stories?

"I don't really know," Eisenberg says. "It was never a plan of mine, and it's not a plan of mine now. It's not as though I adamantly insist on some sort of primacy of the short story." It might, she says, have something to do with her liking of getting things into the smallest possible spaces.

"Of course," she adds, laughing (which she does easily) and citing The Brothers Karamazov, "the smallest possible space might indeed be a zillion pages."

So, how did Deborah Eisenberg of the easy laugh and the quick discomfort with praise react when the MacArthur Foundation called saying she'd been named a fellow?

"I was profoundly moved," she says simply. Then, after a pause, she adds, "It's deeply, deeply gratifying."

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