I read you. Finally. And yes, you're stinking fantastic, just like "they" all say. And yes, this is probably news to no one but me. I who resisted for years, who fought the good fight. I cede the battle. Babe, you win.
So I'd see her books and hot waves of shame would wash through me. I'd hastily put her book back, sandwiched between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Fa'iz El-Ghusein. Just joking. Barnes and Noble doesn't carry too many of those there Muslim writers. (Yes, I know El-Ghusein is a martyred Armenian writer. Mostly, I know this because I just Googled "writers whose name begins with E" in order to make up (an increasingly not funny) joke.
And on a side note: really, Wikipedia? Eisenhower is the best you can do under authors whose name begins with "Ei". I mean Deborah Eisenberg, one of the foremost short story literary talents of our day isn't even listed, but Ike is. What the hell did Ike write anyway?
The hot waves of shame were, are real though, not something I conjured for the sake of this ambling anecdote about my lifelong, one-sided duel. You see, once upon a time in a land far, far away, I ran into Deborah's boyfriend. At least he was her boyfriend at the time, or so the gossip went. And come to think of it, oddly enough the rest of this will read like a Deborah Eisenberg anecdote, although it is all also entirely true.
It was the inconceivable guy himself. In the flesh. You can also Google that, "the inconceivable guy", and Vizzini a.k.a. Wallace Shawn will pop up, attached for life to that phrase. Oh, how thrilled he must have been about that. I think that's how we, in the smallish town, referred to him, too, as that inconceivable guy.
Nobody knew his real name, but everybody knew Deborah was dating him. I don't really know how, but rumor and gossip has a way of flying around a smallish town. And Charlottesville was still a smallish town in those days, and Deborah was one of its luminaries, teaching at the university. So people talked. And I listened, because OH MY GOD did I love The Princess Bride.
You've seen it. Of course you have. But have you ever read The Princess Bride? I have, and it does not-a end-a the way you might-a think it ends. Stick with the movie. The book is not exactly a fairy tale. It's much, much darker, although fairy tales can be dark, but not the Disney, cleaned-up kind we've all gotten used to.
The book is all about this one lesson: Life is pain. It's a casual, throwaway line in the movie, just one more in a world of wit, but in the book, it's the heart of the whole story. There is no happy ending. Not in the book. I read that book when I was eight, and in some ways it is probably why I'm a writer today. I read that book for the first time in maybe one sitting. In the book, the Peter Falk character you see in the movie is this omniscient, interrupting narrator, telling stories about his own life, a book within the book, and most of the stories are about what the pretend book The Princess Bride meant to him, how it taught HIM the lesson that life is pain, and anyone who tries to tell you different is trying to sell you something, and by the time I was done with the book, I had learned the lesson, too.
I stayed up all night after being denied my happy ending, and oh my God did I cry and cry and cry. I couldn't unread what I'd read. Inigo's wound reopens. Fezzik gets lost. The prince could be heard in the distance in hot pursuit, coming ever closer, and then the book within the book ends. On that miserable note. And the omniscient narrator points out that even if they got away, Buttercup would eventually lose her looks, some young punk would eventually best Wesley, etc. There is no "happy ending". Things just end.
William Goldman, you owe me back a night of my young life that should have been spent dreaming of pretty princesses embraced by perfect pirates.
Easy, happy endings gnawed at me from that moment on. I could detect the salesman posing as a storyteller, and I was not content. (By the way Deborah Eisenberg is the real thing; she's no salesman.) Anyway, back then, when I ran into Deborah's Inconceivable Prince, I didn't read "living writers". I still liked fairy tales, or at the very least what I vaguely thought of as "olden times" language. I hadn't read Deborah, but I had seen The Princess Bride, and the movie was happy and shiny and beautiful and funny enough to almost make me forget that lesson William Goldman seared on my young brain, late one night towards the end of my innocent childhood.
And then I was standing in line on the Downtown Mall, having an ordinary day, being all fabulous and teenagery. (Probably not so fabulous though in retrospect, what with the acne I suffered from and thought I could cover up with yellowish concealer "to cancel out the red spots!" You see what I mean about the salesmen and the pain?) And there he was in front of me in line, in the flesh, VIZZINI! The Sicilian. And I did it, the thing that still sends hot waves of shame and made me avoid Deborah Eisenberg's books even though the edition of her short stories that I saw in Barnes and Noble was thick and beautiful with those cut, ragged pages that always make me think of Gatsby's libraries and all the uncut pages of his books for some reason.
And I said (I actually really said), "Oh my God, are you that guy who says 'inconceivable' in Princess Bride?" And Oh my God, he smiled at me so sweetly. I was really still a child then-- I've always been emotionally behind everyone else, and at 18 I was like a twelve-year-old in many ways, and he must have sensed that, the poor guy, so he admitted that yes he was "that guy" without sneering at me or otherwise rightfully putting me in my place. And then I think I... oh God, oh God... I ASKED HIM TO SAY IT. (You know what I mean.) And I think he did, although the later shame obscured some of the details from this memory. And then he got his pizza slice or whatever and ambled down the Downtown Mall without once biting my head off or otherwise shaming me, which I turned out to be more than capable of doing myself. Because then it's like I came out of this dream-state, and I realized what I'd done, and again, another phase of my life was over, marked by the pain brought to bear through the medium of my favorite book/ movie.
And I declared to myself that henceforth ye shall never read Deborah Eisenberg or see any of Wallace Shawn's fine works in Clueless or Manhattan for then ye shall be reminded ye are an idiot and dieth of the shame.
So it came to pass that it wasn't until I took out The O. Henry Prize Stories for 2013 and read all of them except Deborah's and almost returned it without reading her story, and then (because I am afflicted with OCD among my other problems like talking to myself in old-timey tongues) had to read her story, too, and was so blown away by how beautiful and funny and cool a writer she is that it blew away all the hot waves of shame as well (or most of them).
And forsooth, I shall verily read lots more of her works. And ye should, too.
By the way Deborah uses the word "whilst" in a very amusing way, so if you also have a prejudice against living writers and a preference for "old-timey talk" you'll be like totally covered. The quote in the blog title, while suffering from a lack of "thous" and "thees" in my humble opinion, is a brilliant line from Eisenberg's miraculously good short story "Your Duck is My Duck". And P.S. It tied for my favorite along with Kelly Link's "The Summer People" in the O. Henry book, but all the stories are pretty damn fantastic. Have you read them yet? Which were your favorites? Why?