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Albert MobilioIn two collections of finely tuned short stories, Deborah Eisenberg has proven herself an agile chronicler of unquiet souls, people who are hanging on, dropping out or in free fall -- those whose lives are about to change whether they like it or not. Their emerging awareness of this precipitous condition, deftly noted by Eisenberg, pretty well makes up her typical narrative arc. From this spare format she generates a limited array of moods all so persuasively conveyed that her first two collections -- Transactions in a Foreign Currency and Under the 82nd Airborne -- offered the particular pleasure of an obsessive sensibility, a heady immersion in a singular world. This is still delightfully the case in her new collection, All Around Atlantis, a book that brings together six previously published pieces and one new tale.
"The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor," which opens the volume, allows us unnerving access to the ruminations of a boarding school girl, Francie, who journeys home to make arrangements following her mother's death. In their empty house she ponders the meticulous housekeeping: "Her mother's bed was tightly made; the bedspread was as mute as the surface of a lake into which a clue had been dropped long before." The teenager discovers that the father she'd believed dead is, in fact, alive and living in New York. Drawing her story to an abrupt close just as the girl -- a box containing her mother's ashes on her lap -- is about to meet her father, Eisenberg inserts us between Francie's free fall and the collision about to alter her life. The moment detonates silently, encased within the vacuum of anticipation.
Another young woman about to tilt one way or another is Rosie, the ex-junkie house painter in "Rosie Gets a Soul." A past master of emotional blankness, Rosie fondly recalls how drugs could "unhook you from that stupid step-by-step business -- first one moment, then the next, then the one after that." While doing decorative painting for a wealthy couple she finds herself attracted to the good-natured but utterly ordinary husband. His matter-of-fact politeness stirs long dormant feelings and, for Rosie, time breaks free of its grid and acquires the propulsive trajectory of desire. But things aren't wrapped up prettily -- we last see Rosie as she steals the wife's slip from the couple's bedroom, an impulsive, potentially ugly act that Eisenberg presents as a gesture of both futility and salvation.
Three stories feature Americans as less-than-sentient strangers in strange lands -- specifically in Latin America. While finely worked, they have a slightly dated air, as if they've emerged belatedly from the 1980s, when South of the Border locales served as handy counterpoints to norteamericano decadence.
But the volume's chief attraction is its title piece, the longish "All Around Atlantis," a story that takes the form of a letter written just after the death of the correspondent's mother. She writes to her Hungarian mother's onetime lover, Peter, who was also a postwar Hungarian émigré. While never mentioned explicitly, the Holocaust lurks at the edges of this story of displaced Europeans and displaced European culture. The narrator recalls the immigrants on New York park benches "blinking in the indifferent American sun" reading "their newspapers in Yiddish, in Polish, in Hungarian, in Czech ..." "If the great empires exist anywhere now," she writes contemplating present-day exiles, "it's right here, on these benches." With startling sleight of hand, Eisenberg unbalances us by mixing nostalgia with unspeakable sadness; she conjures great loss obliquely, by inference and deduction. The art -- and it is a considerable one -- in this collection lies in her ability to say so much while saying so little. All Around Atlantis furthers and deepens Eisenberg's exploration of melodies unheard, but still not sweet. -- Salon