Your Duck is My Duck
(2018), American author Deborah Eisenberg’s first short-story collection since 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes
, continues Eisenberg’s exploration of her signature themes: the moral and political failures of American civilization and the challenges of artistic creation within that context. Reviewers hailed Your Duck is My Duck
as further evidence that Eisenberg is “an undisputed master of the short story” (Publishers’ Weekly
The title story follows an unnamed American painter—a woman approaching middle age—who accepts an invitation from a rich expat couple named Ray and Christa to use their “beach place” as a retreat. The artist accepts, hoping for some respite from her bad break-up. To a doctor who asks her why she is suffering from insomnia, she replies: “What’s to figure out? I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life…It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.”
When she arrives at the house (in an unspecified South American country), she finds a group of wealthy accountants already in situ
, as well as a puppeteer named Amos Voinovich. What’s more, Ray is having an affair with a supermodel, and he and Christa are at each other’s throats. The area is beset by drought, flooding, and fires (the latter caused in part by Ray’s decision to plant hundreds non-native of eucalyptus trees). From a window of the house, the guests can see a line of refugees waiting for a boat out.
One night at dinner, Ray mentions a Zen riddle, involving a monk, his pupil, and a duck, who are all trapped in a bottle. The Zen master asks his disciple how to get the duck out of the bottle without hurting the duck or breaking the bottle. Ray suggests the answer should be: “It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem.”
Amos creates a puppet show entitled “State of Emergency,” which uncomfortably satirizes the wealthy guests. Amos and the painter return to New York together, where she reflects, “It’s odd—no matter how you feel about a place, it’s as though you exchange something with it. It keeps a bit of you, and you keep a bit of it.” He replies, “The thing you mostly get to keep is leaving.”
The collection’s second story, “Taj Mahal,” opens in the voice of a celebrity memoirist, Clement Rouse, the grandson of “the filmmaker Anton Pavlak.” This voice pines for several paragraphs before the story’s narrator, Emma, cuts in: “What to do with all this horseshit?”
Emma, the daughter of a former lover of Pavlak’s, is attending a small gathering of the people mentioned in Rouse’s memoir. They are unhappy with his version of the story: “Pure gossip and invention! Were any of them interviewed? Were any of them even contacted? No!”
As the conversation swirls around her, Emma recalls her memories of Rouse. This leads into reflections on her whole life: from the decline of her mother’s career to the disappointment of her own; her failed marriage and ill-advised affair. As the party ends, Emma feels a melancholy attachment to the guests’ collective attempt to impose some order on their unraveling histories: “Do you remember that day, she thinks, when we got together and we talked about some stupid book? We were all together, and it was a perfect day, that perfect fall day—do you remember?”
In “Cross Off and Move On,” another nameless narrator remembers her mother, a failed actor who worked as a coat-check attendant and whose bitterness fatally eroded their relationship. She also thinks fondly of her three aunts—her absent father’s sisters—who soothed her when her mother hurt her and told her family secrets that she didn’t know. Finally, she recalls bringing her husband to the funeral of one of her aunts, where he met her mother and pronounced her “as mean as a mace.” In the present moment, the narrator and her husband are separated, but revisiting these memories makes her long for him, in a way: “I fiercely wanted him to come by, but only if he was going to be a slightly different person, a person with whom I would be a different person—a pleasant, benign, even-tempered person.”
Family history also drives “Recalculating,” in which Adam becomes fascinated by the figure of his uncle Phillip, who fled to Europe as a young man and never returned. After college, Adam attends Phillip’s funeral, where he meets his uncle’s former girlfriend Vivian: “The 23 percent of him that was heterosexual, he said, had loved her passionately and exclusively.” The story ends as Adam, now a sustainable architect like his uncle before him, meets Vivian again at a ceremony to honor Phillip’s work. There the story hints that something transpired between the two after their first meeting.
In “The Third Tower,” a young woman undergoes treatment for a psychological disorder that seems to be nothing more or less than unrestrained creativity.
The collection’s longest story—at almost 60 pages, more a novella than a story—opens with an epigraph from Donald Trump: “I know words. I have the best words.” The story, “Merge,” follows Keith, the son of a wealthy CEO whose corporation is involved in exploitative practices in the developing world. To emancipate himself, Keith has forged a check signed by his father and gone “off the grid” in New York. An entitled rich kid, when he is asked on a date by do-gooder Celeste, he worries that someone from his Princeton class will see him with this “rather soft-looking girl with…badly cut hair falling over her big, round glasses.”
However, Keith needs a place to stay, so he starts sleeping with Celeste, and learns that she is a dog walker for an elderly widow, Cordis, whose husband, Ernst Friedlander, disappeared during an anthropological research trip. When Celeste departs on a humanitarian mission to Slovakia, Keith takes over her dog-walking responsibilities.
However, Celeste’s real destination is the unspecified location where Friedlander disappeared many years before. Her postcards to Keith become increasingly cryptic. While Keith learns compassion, Celeste may or may not complete Friedlander’s search for a pure and original language—if she does, then Keith is not able to interpret her missives. Her final message is “FIRE.” Meanwhile, Cordis reflects on “the big-brained animal so stupid…that it’s burning down its own home along with everyone else’s.”