BASS 2019: Deborah Eisenberg, “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares #44.1

“Too Many Words” by Payana

“Too Many Words” by Payana

[The story] began – uncharacteristically – with the title, which popped into my head one day. I thought, Somebody should write something called “The Third Tower,’ and after a time during which nobody seemed to do that, I thought, Oh, well, I guess I will.
I really didn’t know what snagged me on that title, but it was always in my mind as I worked, and eventually, after many trials, I finished the story. So then there I was, with a story set in a sort of near future or a parallel present, about a girl – a young laborer – whose imagination, curiosity, vitality, and quality of experience are being purposefully reduced.
So it turned out that what had interested me about that phrase, the third tower, were matters concerning the systemic opportunism of power and money: catastrophe as a rationale for increasing economic inequities, as a rationale for invasions and resource appropriations and wars and oppression that benefit only the powerful; catastrophe utilized as an instrument to make a population compliant or inadvertently complicit – incapable of significant dissent or incapable even of comprehending what is happening to it.

Deborah Eisenberg, Contributor Note

One of the hallmarks of imagination – creativity – is the lack of uniformity from one person to the next. To Eisenberg, “the third tower” instantly associates with the two towers of 9/11. Me, I went immediately to Tolkien. I’ve never read Tolkien (don’t judge), and I have a clear memory of 9/11 (a friend of mine worked at the Port Authority in one of the towers; she was getting oatmeal in the cafeteria when the plane hit, and, trained by her experience with the 1993 bombing, she got the hell out of there in time to see people jumping out of windows and marvelled at a grocer selling blueberries on the sidewalk just a few blocks away as she walked home), but that’s where my associations took me.

I think I was at a disadvantage with this story because I simply don’t run on the same imaginative track as Eisenberg. For instance, that final paragraph above about opportunism and catastrophe strikes me as a very real condition of the present, but if it’s in the story, it’s because the reader puts it there.

We’re introduced to Therese, the protagonist of this dystopian-future story, as she’s about to leave her home for medical treatment of a hyperassociative disorder, evidenced by her deficient word-stabilization reflex. When you say tree, she says piano, when she’s supposed to say… um, tree. There is, by the way, a psychiatric symptom referred to as loose associations, but it’s far more dramatic than anything here; it’s more like when you say tree I say gears grinding milkmaids in blue pillowcase.

Her friend gives her a blank book to take with her, because “you like to do handwriting.” But it’s a lot more than handwriting:

She opens the book, just to admire again the lovely, thick, rough-edged paper, but then the air starts to shimmer, and it splinters, splashing words and pictures everywhere, all whirling and glittering.
She grabs up her pen: wooden table dim cozy place. Funny song about mouse, hands clapping in time. Leaves dripping, fresh! – horse and buggy?? Bugy?? Blossoms, hooves. Glass mountain, meadow mountain tiny white flowers tiny yellow star-flowers tiny pearl moon. Clothes whisper night fields moon whispers – sailing moon, sorcerer moon, watchman moon. Marching band – shiny octopus-instruments – light or swords? Long robes little outdoor tables little glass cups, stars, moon,..
The pictures flow by, sparkling, dissolving, blending in their disorder, like the landscape outside the window of the train, fading finally.
She blinks, and looks around at the stillness of the room, the mute shutters.
Right. Back in the drawer goes the book. Maybe these pictures are memories that somehow became detached from other people and stray through the universe, slipping through rips in the fabric and clinging to whatever living beings they can, faulty beings like her …

This is one of the strong points of the story: the descriptions of Theresa’s episodes, the ones the treatment is supposed to stop. She’s looking forward to a cure, which is itself heartbreaking.

Some of her word episodes are less felicitous than moons and marching bands, such as when she remembers, while riding on the train to the city, that someone told her some criminals had escaped from prison.

Fugitives – the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror. Therese snatches up her book and pen, and rapidly writes something down.
She’s sweating. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before she looks at what the book says: Uniforms – teams, prisoners, and guards, shouting, clanging – blood and weapons. Two civil guards stumbling through trees, they trip on twisted roots, they carry a heavy pole, one of the guards at each end, a man hangs from it, roped to it by bleeding wrists and ankles…

It seems to me these might not be imaginings as much as they are suppressed memories. Hence the sinister importance of the treatment: can’t have people remembering how much fun things used to be, or how brutal the authorities can be. Hear tree, think tree, not noose. Not fires in the Amazon. Someone else will do all the thinking there is to be done. And they’ll make sure you’re happy about what they decide.

The story is formatted in brief titled sections, easily labeled chunks, as is fitting with our theme. But, since we are readers with imaginations, we can put the pieces together better than Therese can. She’s surprised by the view of destroyed landscapes, bands of marauding children, general disorder she sees from the train. We have no idea why she’s allowed to see these things – why aren’t the windows boarded up, maybe leaving small louvres for light, other than because that’s the only way to convey them to the reader as Therese is the POV character. She must see these things for us to see these things. But when she gets to the city, her view is indeed obscured, leaving us to wonder what it is we’re not seeing through her eyes.

They work with her, one on one. A kind tech has been trying hard to help her with word-stabilization. Did you ever collect butterflies when you were a child, Therese? The tech asks.
Butterflies? Theresa asks.
With pins? The tech says. And chloroform?

I remember, as a kid, admiring pictures of butterflies in books, until I found out how those pictures were taken. This is a world where, when I say butterfly, you say, kill it and pin it down, whether it’s the word or the insect.

In his Introduction, Anthony Doerr notes the POV shift from Therese to the doctor in a couple of the sections, and has an interesting opinion about the importance of that technique: “Without those leaps away from her protagonist’s point of view, her story would collapse.” I’m not sure what he means by collapsing – I’m no literary match for Doerr, and again, my imagination is on a different track – but I do see great importance to these sections. I see the doctor as just as much a victim of mind control as Therese. Maybe everyone is, except the clown in the White House. Oops, that just slipped in there, didn’t it, maybe I need some word stabilization treatment. Or maybe the story was constructed to take us places like that.

I’ve had Eisenberg’s 2018 collection, Your Duck is My Duck, on my reading list. I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed by this story. Maybe it’s just not my taste. Maybe it’s over my head (Eisenberg’s a MacArthur Grant winner, has a big collection of writing honors, and teaches at Columbia). Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Or it’s possible, as Jake Weber suggests in his post, that BASS wanted to include something from the collection, and this was the story that qualified (in terms of publication date, length, etc.). But maybe, given the glut of dystopic fiction around, it’s a little been-there-done-that, with a backstory so completely left to the imagination as to feel like the story is only half-written. I’m comforted that Jake wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the story either (we really don’t collude on these stories; with rare exceptions, I only read his posts after I’ve at least started mine for a given story).

I don’t think I’ll be reading Your Duck is My Duck any time soon. I might, however, give her 2006 collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (boy does that associate all over), a try.