Your Duck is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg

Review by Terence Jagger, 14 November 2019

This, in spite of its slightly silly sounding title, is an interesting and slightly mysterious collection of six short stories. They are all very different, but share a common characteristic, that the author lets the reader into the narrative secrets only gradually, and then not completely.  Some of the stories end in a very open way, almost as if they haven’t ended, inviting you to contemplate the loose ends and the possible futures for the characters and ideas … which is faithful to real life, of course, but without possibility of resolution. Whether you revel in the ambiguity and find this intriguing, or would prefer greater closure and clarity, is of course a very personal judgement.  I found myself largely intrigued, but occasionally just slightly frustrated!

The title story, Your Duck is My Duck, is probably the one I found least attractive, mainly because two of the major protagonists – not the central narrator – are really unattractive, and are clearly meant to be unsympathetic in many ways – selfish, grasping, amoral in domestic and business affairs. The title’s derivation explains this instantly:

“Don’t think for a moment that if the boat is scuttled, I’ll throw you my rope. I’m sure you all recall the Zen riddle about the great Zen master, his disciple, and the duck trapped in the bottle? It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem!” He slammed his empty glass down on the table and wheeled out.

This is not a very Zen answer, of course, and the narrator, who is invited unexpectedly by a selfish couple to their holiday home, doesn’t provide one either. But she comes through the experience unscathed, in spite of a near miss with pills and an ex-partner. It is not clear whether she is talking about the trip or her life when she says “It’s odd – no matter how you feel about a place, it’s as though you exchange something with it. It keeps a little bit of you, and you keep a little bit of it.” And her companion replies, “I know … and the thing you mostly get to keep is leaving”.

Some of the other stories are less bleak and more moving, though all are ambiguous, shifting, uncertain, and some are tragic.  The Third Tower is the story – or the beginning of a story – about Therese’s treatment for mental illness, and the emptiness and false hope is like a blanket over the day. Merge is a more conventional story on the surface, of Keith (thrown out of his rich father’s house for stealing from him) and his relationship with Celeste, who he meets on the street.  But just as you are working out that Celeste is the saving of him, with her frankness and wit, and her cleverness in involving him in the care of her elderly neighbour and her dog, than the relationship ceases to exist – not with a bang but a whimper – and he goes back home, forgiven.  You do not know why, you have no idea if Celeste is gone for good, and you worry about the dog. But that’s all Eisenberg is giving you, the rest is silence.

My favourite story was probably Cross Off and Move On, with its narrator working out a complex family history full of small feelings and bitter arguments, or Recalculating, the story of Adam getting to know his Uncle Philip at his funeral – after a lifetime away from his family, in Europe (you might as well have said Mars). His decision to strike out from family conservatism and ignorance, and actually go to Europe for the funeral brings in touch with worlds he does not know, but when the story ends, he seems emotionally stranded in London with his uncle’s elderly friends, for whom he is something of a curiosity. He has bravely discovered a part of his past, but has he a future?

Throughout, the writing is very clear and smooth, carefully but only slightly informative and very moody. Eisenberg is excellent at the bitter jest which shares knowledge, and I found all the stories intriguing and entangling – while I was reading them.  The journey was enjoyable and challenging without being in the least difficult or arduous, but the destinations were never reached.  For me, the stories were of the moment – a few weeks later, I could recall almost nothing, and had to do some re-reading to write this review. The sensation was delightful, like eating snow, but some readers will find little lasting warmth and little comfort from these bleak tales of misunderstanding. Others will revel in them.

Deborah Eisenberg,  Your Duck is my Duck  (Europa Editions, 2019). 978-1787701823,  219pp., paperback.

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