Each story is spikily distinct, but themes echo and chime. Many of the plots hinge on a death. Character types reappear. Beautiful, disappointed women cruelly visit their sorrows on their daughters; elderly women and recent college graduates strike up unlikely friendships.
“Yes, I had nightmares — children do,” the narrator in an old story, “All Around Atlantis,” recalls. “After all, it takes some time to get used to being alive. And how else, except in the clarity of dreams, are you supposed to see the world all around you that’s hidden by the light of day?” The ambiguous gift of Eisenberg’s characters is that they never become fully acclimated to our planet, to its beauty or horror. (Or mundanity, for that matter. Even the smallest activity remains monstrously difficult: “I began to unpack, but there was the issue of putting things wherever.”)
In the early work, her characters existed in a state of elegant alienation, a kind of anomie one review described uncharitably (but indelibly) as a 1980s “cocaine-and-radicchio brand of trendiness.” The later work is about emerging from isolation and complacency, about larger questions of what it means to live an ethical life — and, as Eisenberg has said, whether such a thing is even possible for an American. These stories emerge from the ashes of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, out of despoliation and environmental plunder.
The title of the book comes from a Zen riddle. A Zen master, his disciple and a duck are trapped in a bottle. The master’s lesson, as recounted a bit drunkenly by the host of a dinner party, is: “It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem.” Many of the characters exist on the precipice of this realization — they are queasy about their good fortune, heartsick at the way “money moves across the globe at the speed of thought, at the speed of poison in water, but when will these people” — refugees — ”be allowed outside the wire enclosures?” Always they are unsure what to do: “I was exhausted, though still wide awake, as I was so often — wide awake and thinking about things I couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about.”
On the face of it, “Your Duck Is My Duck” could be regarded as a politically mild book for Eisenberg. The world intrudes only at the margins — tumult is hinted at in unnamed countries, glimpses of unspecified migrants. But these are stories of painful awakenings and refusals of innocence. This book offers no palliatives to its characters or to its readers — no plan of action. But it is a compass.