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An Unflinching Examination Of The Human Heart

The Collected Stoires of Deborah Eisenberg

In 1950, while accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner contended that there is one, and only one, subject worth writing about: the human heart in conflict with itself. Any other story is ephemeral and doomed, he said, mired in the corporeal instead of rooted in the soul.

In the years since Faulkner's proclamation, no writer has concerned herself more explicitly or precisely with the complexities of human emotion than Deborah Eisenberg. The writer claims to have a heart of Bakelite -- Depression-era plastic -- but has, in four astonishing collections of short fiction now brought together in a single volume, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, sought to excavate people's most complex and secret feelings, "mental states ... that are just on the border of expressible."

In an early story, "What it Was Like, Seeing Chris," a teenager who's "pale and long" like her little sister but believes she lacks the younger girl's beauty is afraid to ask the ophthalmologist she visits each week in Manhattan whether she's going blind. Tired of disappointing her parents and bored by her friends, she begins stopping in at a bar after her eye appointments and meets a golden-faced 27-year-old man whose smiling solicitude causes her to "notice that I was always lonely in my life." Although he warns her that "there are a lot of strange things about me ... I'm really crazy about you, but I can't ask you to see me," she arranges to stay at his house.

Afterward, she contemplates, as Eisenberg's characters often do, the confusing nature of existence, the seeming randomness of events and their paradoxical inevitability: "every moment is all the things that are going to happen, and every moment is just the way all those things look on their way along a line."

Eisenberg is tenacious. She finds her way into characters' lives slowly; her first story, "Days," took three years to write, and she worked on some in her 2007 collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, for more than a year each. The depressive perceptual acuity that results from all this effort is uniquely hers; to compare it is to reduce it, and yet at its best her lucid but rambling narrative melancholia recalls all at once the passion of Anita Brookner, the furious remove of Jean Rhys, the detached abstraction of David Foster Wallace, the deft compression of Alice Munro and, occasionally, the downbeat, absurdist humor of Lorrie Moore.

"Some Other, Better Otto," the funniest entry in Collected Stories, depicts a gay man who has established a "viable, if not pristine, degree of estrangement" from his disapproving family, with their "wolfish ring of faces." His boyfriend is patient, kind and handsome, reliant on cliche, and maddeningly imperturbable; arguing with him is "like trying to pick a fight with a dog toy!" And when Otto's brilliant but insane sister has a breakdown, Otto can't help but contemplate the emptiness and futility of the human endeavor. "Humans were born, they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died." Eisenberg, like Otto and his sister, possesses the gift of unexpected, unflinching and entirely accurate association, a "tremendous capacity for metaphor" that infuses her characters' reflections -- and this penetrating volume -- with an incontrovertible veracity.

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