‘Like It Or Not’ by Deborah Eisenberg

Like It Or Not by Deborah Eisenberg, 2001

The magic trick:

Subverting the typical expectations, stakes and implications of the romantic comedy

Today begins a week of stories by Deborah Eisenberg.

I was not familiar with her work until this batch of reading, and I now consider that an oversight corrected.

Her subject matter isn’t particularly noteworthy, from what I can tell. Her point of view isn’t especially underserved; her settings aren’t unique. But her technique and style feel fresh. I can’t quite place it. A comparison probably starts with Lorrie Moore but inevitably falls flat into reductive garbage. So ignore that. The effect her stories leave on the reader are original. So, get ready for a good week of stories.

“Like It Or Not” is an excellent short story and is probably a good starting point for the uninitiated.

The story takes the standard “Will they, won’t they?” / “Is this a date or is this not a date?” plot and puts a potent – and cruel – spin on it.

It does this by putting the reader in the point of view of Kate, a middle-aged high school biology teacher visiting her college friend in Italy, for nearly all of the story. Kate’s been set up on a day trip with her college friend’s friend, Harry, who maybe sees this excursion as a romantic adventure but probably sees it as a chore. Kate, herself, isn’t quite sure which.

Crucially, our perspective shifts during the story’s denouement. Suddenly, we are in the mind of Harry – Kate having gone to bed. What this trip into his point of view reveals about men – and how middle-aged women are perceived – is devastating.

And that’s quite a trick on Eisenberg’s part.

The selection:

Harry chivalrously swung her suitcase from the trunk and carried it into the lobby. “What on earth do you have in here?” Rowan would have asked, smiling to illustrate that he wasn’t criticizing her. Harry, of course, was the completely indifferent. Or perhaps he knew perfectly well what weighed those hundreds of pounds – all the jars of things she’d taken, humiliatingly, to smearing on her skin or swallowing.

And what about Harry’s elegant little accouterment, hardly bigger than a briefcase? What could we have fitted into that? A set of tiny tools, no doubt – wrenches, screwdrivers, brushes – with which to disassemble himself and clean his parts…

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