Transactions in a Foreign Currency

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The first-person narrators in Deborah Eisenberg’s collection of short stories Transactions in a Foreign Currency vary in age and social level, but they share an attitude toward life which might best be called tentative. Surrounded by people who seem to know where they are going and for what purpose, Eisenberg’s women question others, imitate their actions, and bond themselves to those who appear purposeful, only to find themselves, like the neurotic speaker in “Days,” looking from a distance at men and women who “stream out of the doors, radiating outward toward the next thing they are to do, each headed, it looks from where I stand, dead on target.”

Eisenberg herself is dead on target in her comic but compassionate stories told from the perspective of those who share a kind of innocence. In “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris,” for example, a young girl, Laurel, relives a series of encounters with a man twice her age whom she met in a bar. Ironically, her weekly meetings with him, a stranger who is casually kind, become her source of stability as she puzzles her way through adolescence. Knowing as little of him as she does, it is not surprising that she is confused by his rejection of her passionate advances. She misses the significance of her father’s disappearance with her promiscuous friend Maureen, however, and fails to guess the reason for her mother’s alternating concern and detachment. Convinced that she is the ugly duckling in the family, Laurel is flattered when Chris leaves his friends to talk to her and moved when he seems to understand her fits of sadness. Like all the relationships in Eisenberg’s stories, however, that between Laurel and Chris proceeds from uncertainty to dissolution. Still unaware of much that goes on around her, at the end of the story Laurel has learned only that human beings move through life imprisoned by choices that they have not knowingly made.

The narrator in “A Lesson in Traveling Light” shares Laurel’s innocence. In contrast to her hippie boyfriend Lee, she seems to have little past. As she travels to places where she has never been and meets friends of Lee about whom she knows nothing, she is constantly attempting to unravel the clues which will bring her to a solution of the mystery of Lee: who he is, what he wants. Because as a “warrior” he travels “light,” limited only to what he can carry in his van, she is always aware that she herself may come to be excess baggage. Lee’s attitude toward her becomes clear early in the story when he confesses that he feels responsible for her. To her, that is a good sign; to Lee, it is bad. Later, visiting his old girlfriend Kathryn, the narrator, nearly asleep, hears Lee indicate that their travels together may be nearing an end. They are having “problems”; he cannot “help her” any more. Clearly she has become a troublesome piece of baggage, which will be replaced by the girl from a past which Lee, for all his protestations, has not discarded on his warrior’s journey.

Like Laurel in “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris,” the narrator in “A Lesson in Traveling Light” is also seeking a lover and a home because her own family provides no haven for her. Arguing that Lee does not want her to contact her parents for fear that their existence might make her too “real” for him to discard, she persuades him to stop at a phone booth so that she can call them, perhaps visit someone who is part of her own past. Her mother, however, is out, and her father is discontented with the world and uninterested in seeing her. Rejected, she replies “home” when he asks where she is; home is the van of the boy who will in turn soon reject her just as easily.

Eisenberg’s symbolism emphasizes the loneliness and the isolation of her narrators. In “A Lesson in Traveling Light,” the narrator has telephoned her parents from a huge parking lot near an isolated supermarket. In the darkness, “the glass phone booth, so solitary in the parking lot, looked like a tiny, primitive spaceship.” During her unsatisfactory conversation with her father, a bus appears, leaves a passenger in the darkness, and itself disappears. Against the mountains and before the huge supermarket, the van itself looks small; yet when she tells her father that she is at home, the van is all that she can look to—the van, which is itself like a spaceship always blasting off into the unknown.

Another character who lives on the edge of other people’s lives is the narrator of the first story in the collection, appropriately titled “Flotsam.” Charlotte cannot forget the gradual rejection and even dislike which she endured from Robert, but she has nevertheless enshrined him as the once perfect lover. Persuaded that she can become worthy of Robert if only the...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, March 15, 1986, p. 1057.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, January 15, 1986, p. 70.

Library Journal. CXI, February 15, 1986, p. 193.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 9, 1986, p. 3.

The Nation. CCXLII, May 10, 1986, p. 664.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, June 26, 1986, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 9, 1986, p. 19.

The New Yorker. LX, January 21, 1986, p. 28.

Newsweek. CVII, June 2, 1986, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, February 7, 1986, p. 59.