This unwieldy volume (an excellent value!) gathers 20 years’ worth of stories from four previously published collections. Eisenberg’s tales, their milieus vividly defined, their dialogue unsettlingly real, are long and leisurely; her characters, hyper-observant but helpless. They often have just enough drive and sense of purpose to thrust themselves into the stream of life, but then they are just carried along, baffled or passive—and even those who have had full lives can’t escape “the usual stupid question … How did I get so old?” New York is a fulcrum for many of these stories, both as a well of opportunity—young people go there, hoping the city will somehow help them become themselves—and as a site of destruction. “Twilight of the Superheroes” must rank among the very best treatments, fictional or otherwise, of 9/11, but other sources of ruin are more insidious and less universally recognized: “I used to be able to scratch up a living with enough left over to do stuff—go to movies, eat out, spend the day observing humanity,” complains an erstwhile reviewer of movies for arty magazines. “Now you want to sit someplace for more than five minutes you got to slap down forty bucks for some kind of noodles with duck feet and grapefruit.” Indeed, a current of despair runs through this collection. Underneath the mundane, disaster—physical, emotional, spiritual—always lurks:
One is just living along … and at just any moment one could contract a viral inflammation of the brain, or a loved one could be getting squashed by a car, or a carton of lead statuettes could fall on one’s foot.
Wry humor surfaces just often enough to keep desolation at bay. After all, while Eisenberg recognizes that there is no escaping selfishness, weakness, and confusion (both intimate and geopolitical)—let alone illness, age, and misfortune—humanity must keep drifting on somehow.
The Bradshaw Variations
In her latest novel, Cusk trains her gimlet eye and glowing prose on an upper-middle-class extended family: the brothers Bradshaw, their wives, and their parents. That these people are related is almost incidental, although Cusk does make some observations about the effects of sibling order and the unshakable influence parents can have on their children, even into adulthood. Mostly, this structure, like that of her previous novel, Arlington Park, allows her to rove freely through a specific pocket of English life, collecting swatches to examine in the light of her prodigious intelligence. In this loose narrative’s dominant story, a husband and wife change roles, which introduces one of Cusk’s most successful topics: what happens to women when they become mothers. One brother “remembers the way [his wife’s] old life died, went over the cliff and smashed itself on the rocks, unfinished,” when their child was born; and his sister-in-law, Claudia, recalls “the prospect of self-sacrifice coming into view like a landscape seen from an approaching train.” (Cusk has a genius for metaphor and simile.) With the ease of a nimble mind at play, she contrasts this with the fathers’ experiences and intertwines all with a discussion of the nature of art. She offers no neat conclusions; everything is a matter of perspective. Perspective is everything, too, when Cusk regards the strange bargains that couples strike—another of her vivid preoccupations. In one arresting scene, Claudia, seeing her mother-in-law hit her bullying father-in-law over the head, realizes, after her initial shock, that she’s witnessed not emergency but intimacy.