Award-winning writer Deborah Eisenberg gives fiction reading

Fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg gave a reading of her work in Griffin Hall on the evening of Feb. 18. Highlights of Eisenberg’s long and distinguished career include several novels and collections of short stories, among them All Around Atlantis, Under the 82nd Airborne, Transactions in a Foreign Currency and The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg. She has also written a play, Pastorale, and has published several essays.

Her work has been widely recognized and renowned; in 1993, she received the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Award for Literature and in 2000, she received the REA Award for the Short Story. She is also a past recipient of the prestigious Whiting Foundation Award, a Guggenhiem fellowship and several O. Henry awards. She is now a member of the English department at the University of Virginia.

After her introduction by Professor of English Jim Shepard, Eisenberg explained that she tends to write long, “hulking short stories,” and would thus be reading a few sections from a longer piece. The story she read from, “Across the Lake,” takes place in what she described as “an un-named country almost identical to Guatemala.” The country is ensnared in a brutal civil war and full of guerrilla soldiers. However, since tourists are the primary source of income, the country makes an effort not to show that they are at war. The story centers around three American tourists: Rob, a recent college graduate and Mik and Suki, an eccentric couple who spend the bulk of their time traveling and collecting textiles.

The most striking and strong quality of “Across the Lake” is the way in which its setting becomes a crucial character in and of itself. The story is filled with rich, specific descriptions of the village in which Rob, Mik and Suki are staying: the dense forests; the lake shimmering with heat; tiny, poor restaurants; crowded, noisy open-air markets and tourist-friendly hotels are described in such careful, accurate detail that those in attendance at the reading, regardless of whether or not they had ever been to a place like Guatemala. One could perfectly picture the country and the village, feel the humid weather, taste the rice and beans served at the restaurants and visualize the natural surroundings.

Eisenberg also stocks the story with just enough background and details about the country’s political situation. We are not overwhelmed with history and exposition, yet we get a sense of the strangeness of living in a place which both engages in and struggles to hide a terrifying war. The country’s relationship with its tourists is an odd blend of reliance and resentment. We come to understand, imagine and empathize with the country just as we would with an actual human character.

However, the story is so focused on the particulars of its setting that it is unable to give enough insight into its actual characters. Describing the country is easy; describing the characters, their personalities and their motives is more of a struggle. Although the story is seen through Rob’s eyes, most of his ideas and impressions have to do solely with the country, not with the way he relates the country to his own life and what that makes him realize. Periodically, he thinks about a girl named Meredith and how, if she were with him, she would help him to see the beauty in everything around him. However, she is mentioned only briefly, never giving a sense of their relationship or how it affected Rob. The same goes for Mik and Suki, but even more so; since they do not even have the privilege of filtering the story’s events through their own eyes, it is even harder to understand their characters, outside their odd habit of running around from place to place collecting textiles. Thus, the story feels more like a good historical account than a piece of fiction.

Perhaps Eisenberg’s audience got this impression because she only read certain sections of the story, due to its length; she often stopped reading and gave summaries of what happened between what she had just read and what she was about to read. This method made it somewhat difficult to follow the story’s plot.

Furthermore, Eisenberg’s decision to read only one work did not allow her audience to see her range as a writer. It seemed that Eisenberg wanted her audience to come away from her reading with one thing – an understanding of her skill at evoking setting – and they did, but at the expense of other important elements of fiction.