‘The Flaw In The Design’ by Deborah Eisenberg

The Flaw In The Design by Deborah Eisenberg, 2005

The magic trick:

Making the reader feel not think

I wrote yesterday, not very eloquently, of the special effect Deborah Eisenberg stories seem to have, even as their subject matter and themes aren’t especially original.

‘The Flaw In The Design” is a very good story to use as a test case. The topics at hand – a privileged but unhappy family, an extramarital affair, a college-aged son who is increasingly distanced from parents who just don’t understand – are tried and true.

The way I felt after reading this story, though? Odd and unsettled. Not tried, not true. It’s very odd.

It’s difficult to assess exactly produces the effect. My guess is that it starts with the narrator. We hear this story from the woman who begins and ends the text reflecting on a one-night (one-afternoon?) fling with a stranger. She almost seems to be talking to us through a stress dream. The transitions from scenes aren’t clear, muddying our understanding of what’s real and what might be a train of thought.

Having her narrate the story also creates an odd dynamic with the college-aged son. We see him only through her eyes, so that puts us on her side of the relationship – desperately struggling to understand what she sees to be a troubled young man on the brink of sanity. When we hear him talk, though, he seems to be speaking the story’s truth: that the family’s privilege and success has come at the expense of what’s good and right.

Again, confusion for the reader.

Suddenly, you’re not thinking about the family’s malaise. You’re feeling it.

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

The selection:

“You’re seriously not going to have any of these?” John says.

Oliver looks at the platter.

This only started recently, after Oliver went off to school. “You don’t have to, darling,” I say.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” John says.

“Hats off, Dad.” Oliver nods earnestly at his father. “Philosophically watertight.”

Recently, John has developed an absent little laugh to carry him past these moments with Oliver, and it does seem to me healthier, better for both of them, if John at least appears to rise above provocation.


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