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Deborah Eisenberg: “Cross Off and Move On”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New York Review of Books webpage.  Deborah Eisenberg’s “Cross Off and Move On” was originally published in the July 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.

 

The New York Review of Books fiction issue is on the stands for a few weeks, and, like last year, they have included a fairly lengthy piece of fiction from the great short story writer Deborah Eisenberg.  “Cross Off and Move On” is a slowly paced walk into the past after our narrator, at around 54 years old, happens upon her cousin Morrie’s obituary in The New York Times; had she not happened to register the slightly familiar person in the photograph she “might have gone on for years assuming that my only known remaining relative was out there somewhere.”

The piece begins here:

Adela, Bernice, and Charna, the youngest — all gone for a long time now, blurred into a flock sailing through memory, their long, thin legs streaming out beneath the fluffy domes of their mangy fur coats, their great beaky noses pointing the way.

They come to mind not so often.

These three women are her father’s sisters.  It’s been over thirty years since she had much to do with any of them, but her cousin’s obituary brings them to mind.  So disoriented is she that she even calls Jake, a man she has been with for most of those thirty years, though they are now separated.  When he asks if she’d like him to come over, she says no.  ”Or, 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.”

Jake is a scientist, and when the narrator remarks on Morrie’s age at death, he for some reasons takes that moment to say that measuring age by the rotation of the sun and moon is arbitrary.  She responds indignantly:

“How do you suggest we measure the life of a human being?” I said.  “By weight?  Would that be less primitive?  By volume?  By votes?  By distance commuted?  By lamentations?  By beauty?”

That conversation was one of the only times in the entire story that I felt Eisenberg was forcing something that didn’t quite work naturally, but it does serve to give the remainder of the story some foundation.  Every relative the narrator knew as a child — and they have had a strong influence on her life (it’s not only the passage of time that has made it so the narrator things of them not so often) — is dead and “sailing through memory.”  Some are more ghostly than others, their weight in this world having dissipated a great deal already, which is the fate of them all.

The story, in a series of nicely crafted episodes, takes us back to the narrator’s childhood.  Her aunts are omnipresent, even in their absences.  Her mother, you see, deathly unhappy with her life, sees herself in some sort of competition with the three sisters, who “live at a convenient distance from us, close enough so that I can be parked with them whenever my mother is indisposed or out late into the night but far enough away so that we don’t run into them at every turn, as my mother puts it.”

Many of the episodes deal with the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a cranky, sickly, witty woman.  One of my favorite passages comes when Jake first meets her.  Thoroughly charmed, he takes the time to instruct the narrator.

“Look, I know this is painful.  I know that it’s easier just to give over to resentment and to simplify the past by demonizing your mother rather than leaving yourself open to the stress of complex and ambiguous emotions.  But you’re an adult now.  Your life is your own.  Why not accept what a difficult life she had, and leave that all behind.  Because even though it was necessary for you at one time, and gratifying, by now this resentment is obsolete, and it’s just stunting you.” 

I got myself a separate room for the night, and after I called my mother in the morning to say goodbye, I met with Jake for breakfast and I couldn’t help mentioning to him that she had wished me better luck with him at least than she’d had with my father and said that he seemed like a decent man but a bit self-important, overly susceptible to flattery, and maybe not all that bright. 

He took a quick breath in, and of course I was very, very ashamed of myself.  “Your mother is as mean as a mace,” he said. 

“She’s had a difficult life,” I was evidently not too ashamed to say.

As a young child, much doesn’t make sense.  She doesn’t even know she’s Jewish until she’s quite old.  The past is a painful one, filled with losses of all sorts.  So accustomed is she to the phrase “We mustn’t dwell on it” that it’s a long time before she thinks to question what it means:

What mustn’t we dwell on?  Well, everybody knows that, really: we mustn’t dwell on what came before.

And right there we meet a whole host of human lives whose weight in this world is dissipating quickly.  No one will talk about them.  All around her are absences and the ”murmur of indecipherable allusions.”  “Cross Off and Move On” itself is filled with intimations of much more, making it, despite its length, one of those great short stories that suggests much more than it reveals, mimiking the childhood of this poor, embittered woman.  It leaves its impact slowly and cumulatively.

I loved it.

8 thoughts on “Deborah Eisenberg: “Cross Off and Move On””

  1. Jon says:

    Pretty stunning story–thanks very much for bringing it to our attention.

    I think your last paragraph is a great summary and insight–this story just intimates so much more than it explicitly describes.

    I agree the episodes were nicely crafted–I’m not fully sure how I feel about the changes in tone/style. (I kept having the sense that if only I had gotten that PhD in comparative literature, I’d understand this piece better.)

    The first two paragraphs distinctly reminded me of the elegiac feeling of the novel “Austerlitz”–then there’s an abrupt change in pace and I felt like I was in a busy cafe on the Upper West Side. I felt like the story continued to shift tone and perspective. Sometimes the narrative voice is one of childlike innocence, then it may becomes very “literary” and observant, then self-reflecting while analyzing imagery it just observed. By the end, I felt like there may have been a self-conscious effort to play a little bit off “Austerlitz” (many of the same themes of memory and loss)–like this was a manic, New York version of Sebald’s unique voice.

    I agree there were a few places where conversation felt forced, mostly with Jake and some of the more extremes of the mother’s behavior (anti-semitic remarks against her own daughter?–maybe some families are more extreme than I imagined).

    I was glad that Jake made an appearance toward the end as a voice of reason and reconciliation. (I was a bit worried that “Jake” was Jewish Novelist shorthand for “Obtuse, Dumb, Goy”.)

    Finally, it was really interesting to hear a woman’s perspective on a sub-culture that mostly has been written about by men (Roth and his contemporaries). Having a Jewish grandmother who also immigrated from Russia carrying her Samovar, I found the story opened up the internal life of her and others in a way only literature really can.

  2. Jon says:

    Exit Question:

    What are we to make of fact that only two “reasonable” male characters seem a bit idealized (while I also liked Jake’s passage after meeting the mother, it’s almost too-perfect advice) or have signs of Asperger’s (the violinist’s list mania, Jake’s weird “rotations of the sun” comment). Otherwise, for representing the male gender, we have the runaway father, the youngest Aunt’s character-less “friends,” and the asshole financier and asshole bartender boss.

    Do you think these were conscious decisions on part of author, or semi subconscious reflections of her worldview?

    Note: As an example of the latter, I’d give Barbara Kingsolver.

  3. Trevor says:

    Hi Jon, sorry for the delay here. I read your thoughts — which I greatly appreciated — on email but hadn’t been able to respond until now. I actually didn’t catch the tonal shifts — or, rather, I caught them but did assume it was due to the age the narrator was narrating, and I didn’t read much else into it. I now wish I had been more aware since I’d love to read this thinking about Sebald.

    I am interested in your views on Jake, who, even though perhaps not the “obtuse, dumb, goy,” was still the outsider. He didn’t know these people, which must have been one reason she stuck with him as long as she did, so I did still feel that he was in the dark, his reasonable comments still pretty far off the mark (though very funny).

    I thought about this while I reflected on your exit question, which I’d be happy to get more of your thoughts on (this is fairly off the cuff). I feel that Jake’s “almost too-perfect” advice is just that: too perfect. It’s as if he can say this by rote; it’s the right thing to say to someone, though he clearly doesn’t understand the situation, as much as his advice may be “correct.” As for the other men, I think they reflect the narrator’s worldview, not Eisenberg’s. I may be basing my opinion on other stories by Eisenberg, but I’ve never got the sense that she has such a worldview. (and I totally get what you mean by Kingsolver)

    Am I off the mark?

  4. Jon says:

    Hi Trevor, Thanks for your reply.

    I think you’re right about the tonal shifts just reflecting relative states of narrator (I was perhaps being overly analytical.) I do think there’s some linkage to “Austerlitz”–something about the main character’s state of mind (resigned, self-conscious reminiscing) being driven by a “shell-shocked” kind of condition. (And the accompanying photographs are very similar to Austerlitz.)

    I just found the control over style/voice fascinating. In one section, there’s an observation:

    “The immense Oriental rugs are worn almost white in places too, but as you study them the sleeping intricacies begin to surface in the weave.”

    Then image gets riffed on in next paragraph: “the hieroglyphics rise up in the rugs.” I always got this sense of the story circling around on itself at different levels.

    On Jake, that’s an interesting take on how narrator might see him, which sound right. And yes, I can see Jake’s advice as being rote (sounds almost like it’s been lifted from the fourth step of AA), but at the same time it kind of applies. (This is the part of the story I just feel I don’t fully understand.)

    Because on the one hand, narrator has had to deal with lots of horribleness (which Jakes appears not to have any sense of)–on the other, her life is put in context by her cousin the violinist summarizing all the European relatives lost in the Holocaust. Does this help her get perspective, or somehow make her feel trapped?

    And finally, that makes sense that a writer of Eisenbeg’s caliber would be in control of how men are portrayed (I had also forgotten to mention the men in the nightclub her mother works at–no one too admirable there either.)

    In terms of romantic relationships, there seems to be no model of mutual trust available to the narrator. There’s the Aunts being single and they also having experienced loss (Morrie tells us parents were lost at Auschwitz). Just not sure what to make of it all…

    I reread the last few paragraphs and appreciate them so much more now: the temporary bliss in the ancient palace (built on “war and lootings”) is a great image; and then considerate Jake already planning on how to end things (narrator imagines).

  5. Hanrod says:

    I just finished the story in the NYRB, and found it moving and expert enough in its mirror of our human experience, as to cause me to bother with learning more, leading me here. A truly wonderful story, not necessarily unique in itself, but certainly in its telling and the craft of its author. It belongs in a 2012 “best of” anthology. I have saved many great short stories in my 75 years, and although this story does not speak directly to any of my personal experience, still it will be saved with my lifetime “favorites”.

  6. Hanrod says:

    P. S. You MFA students and literary hopefuls, with your attempts at “deconstruction” and character analysis, are pathetic, and sometimes quite funny.

  7. Jon says:

    Hanrod, you’ve encouraged me to go a step further in analysis :) (And character study IS interesting. I’ve always been curious about people like you and your use of the same “handle” allows for a quick google search that reveals the amazing swath you’ve cut across the internet. You spew venom at a striking variety of targets: pet owners, Catholic Church, policemen, and “hateful” right-wingers (you have a sense of irony also!). To top it off, it’s quite unusual for a retiree to play violent video games. While your neighbors refer to your posts on local issues as “uneducated, irrational, and fanatical” — quite the character!

    Re: Austerlitz
    More I think about it, the more I see parallels. Austerlitz was raised by strange family he didn’t belong to, which mirrors how main character in this story felt. And while it’s been a while since I read Austerlitz, I think I remember character struggling with whole issue of whether or not “to dwell on what came before.”

  8. Trevor says:

    Welcome to the forum, Hanrod. I think we do a good job keeping it civil here, but if we have a bone to pick we at least substantiate our claim. So, where is the deconstruction above? If it is there, please explain why it is wrong-headed, if not pathetic. And I’m fully with Jon on the high value of character analysis, so I don’t see anything pathetic there either. But we welcome further thoughts there, so long as they’re not trollish. If so, time to block, though your first comment leads me to think that would be a bit of a waste.

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