Another of my book clubs reads two short stories each month. Reading “Another, Better Otto” by Eisenberg, a new author for me, was one of the most satisfying reading experiences I've ever had. Immediately I hustled to the library and laid my hands on this collection, which includes that story along with five others, and sat down to savor them. Eisenberg's tales stretch out to give us a complex world with characters who tantalise the reader with their many facets. I am going to discuss the story I read for book club, but the other stories rise to the same level.
As we meet him, Otto is agonising over spending Thanksgiving with his family, meaning his siblings and their spouses and children. He and his partner, sweet and gentle William, have successfully avoided familial holiday gatherings for years. He's not sure how he got trapped this time by his somewhat bossy sister, Corinne. Otto congratulates himself for having freed himself from his family. But has he? He and William visit his other sister, Sharon, to pass on the invitation. He loves this damaged girl whose brilliant mind somehow slipped, but it is William who thinks to bring flowers.
Smudged as Sharon's brain has become, it is Otto's mind that we follow down dark and sometimes tortured paths. “Humans were born,” he thinks, “they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died . . Let the organisms chat. Let them talk. Their voices were as empty as the tinkling of a player piano.”
One member of my group suggested that the story shows the evolution of the modern family. What is the role of family today, when women can be both breadwinners and chief nurturers? Protection, perhaps, or mutual support. I have long said that it is the family we choose that matters, not necessarily the one we're born into.
Yet, as Otto says, “they had been one another's environs as children . . . there had been no other beings close by, no other beings through whom they could probe or illumine the mystifying chasms and absences and yearnings within themselves.” He goes on to acknowledge that “one did have an impulse to acknowledge one's antecedents, now and again.” I remember my aunt on her deathbed laying aside her lifelong quarrel with my mother, saying that my mother was the only person she wanted to see because she was the only one who remembered the things she did.
Even more mysterious is what ties two people together over the decades of our changing, growing selves. At first it's hard to see why William tolerates irascible Otto. Even here, Eisenberg delicately treads the edges of the bond between Otto and William.
Otto's need for connection to William is obvious even as he berates him for his addiction to pop psychology platitudes, but as one person in my group suggested, perhaps that grows out of or relates to his need to connect to himself. Not to be outdone in the platitude department, yet somehow touching what matters, another person said that love is the answer.
How does Eisenberg do it? There is the particular voice of each narrator, the net of images and references unique to each story, the subtlety of language. Most of all, she brings intelligence and much thought to ideas that matter, giving them a depth and complexity I see only too rarely. I have added Eisenberg to that pantheon of authors whose every book I intend to read.