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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013

Lives and Times Uncertain

Milwaukee novelist reflects on the ‘Me Decade’

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I don’t know why retired Milwaukee pathologist Reuben Eisenstein decided to set his debut novella during the 1970s, but the choice was spot on.

Date Certain takes place in the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate, post-’60s-activism Carter years—a period of national apathy and percolating international tensions. Americans’ search for meaning had faded into a clock-punching numbness, rife with attempted distractions (disco, pet rocks, cocaine) from how empty and self-centered their lives had become—as well as from the Cold War and, shortly, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Why is this period relevant now? Read Carter’s “Malaise Speech” (though in fact, he never uttered the M-word); it couldn’t be more timely. A generation later, America—programmed by the inane solipsism of so-called reality TV and IT-driven instant everything—has cycled back into superficiality and navel-gazing…even as our soldiers die fighting the Taliban, half a world away.

Into today’s United States of Anomie, Eisenstein lofts a narrative hand grenade: a lean, harrowing narrative that refuses to play by the rules in chronicling one man’s search for meaning. Dr. Benjamin Stone journeys out of his ’70s complacency and into a veritable wrestling ring full of timeless human quandaries: What’s the nature of reality? What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here—and how ought we respond to the “certain” knowledge that our lives have an expiration date?

Date Certain is a spider of sorts, its legs spanning eight genres: medical mystery, psychodrama, horror, science fiction, detective yarn, existential meditation, dark fantasy and story-in-dreams. The resultant narrative web could be described as a “metaphysical thriller,” yet that doesn’t quite do it justice. I find myself referencing the works of others: think of this novella as “Faustus Meets Franz Kafka.” Or “Kafka Meets Kubrick”—specifically The Shining (1980), a horror movie that, like Date Certain, breaks its genre’s rules and blurs the boundary between psycho(path)logy and the supernatural, between reality and dream.

Perhaps a better allusion would be to David Lynch, for just as in Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), one loses track in Date Certain of what the protagonist is experiencing and what he is dreaming. (See also Ambrose Bierce’s classic novelette An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.) Perhaps the distinction is, for Ben, finally of little consequence. Not for nothing does fog play a prominent role in the proceedings; in this novella, definitions go fuzzy and distinctions blur at every turn.

As for Ben, he’s just ordinary enough to be universally relatable and just quirky enough to be authentic; we’ll follow him anywhere—and believe what we see there. The three supporting characters (the unsettling medical resident Mahmoud; the irascible, almost-unflappable Detective Capriano; and the well-dressed “stranger” whose two mysterious appearances frame the story) positively leap off the page. Even the minor figures shine: sweet spouse Rachel Stone, masterful secretary Martha Johnson and the imposing medical examiner, Dr. Gregory (whose first name isn’t revealed, since Ben’s humility prevents him from ever using it). Because the people all seem real, the story does too, even when it wends its way into places most uncommon.

Banality—of ’70s suburbia, of children’s TV programs, of departmental administration—is a part of life, and Eisenstein includes goodly dollops of it, particularly early on. The trick, of course, is to describe boredom without boring the reader. At this, the physician/author proves expert; a wry, understated sense of humor is this doctor’s potent preventive medicine. Chapter four’s description of the notoriously bad TV cartoon show “Clutch Cargo” is worth the price of admission alone.

Alongside the banalities, and leavening them, are occasional poetic flashes: tears that, shed beneath a cloud burst, “looked like raindrops,” biopsy slides described as “thin slices of a moment in a body’s life.” In the end, though, this novella is less about language than content: the ingredients of Dr. Ben Stone’s life during a most unusual week and a half in the spring of 1977. Or, more properly, of Dr. Stone’s three lives—home, work and dream…and the oft-jarring intersections between.

Eisenstein will read from Date Certain at 7 p.m. Monday, August 19 at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave.