A reviewer from Kirkus Reviews calls the story “superb,” and R. Z. Sheppard, in a review for magazine, specifically praises the character Beale: “In ‘Someone to Talk To,’ a journalist who won’t stop gabbing about himself long enough to ask a question is worthy of Evelyn Waugh.” Gail Caldwell of the Boston Globe , however, felt that the three stories in the collection set in Central America “suffer from a pedantic overkill on the displaced imperialist theme.” Referring specifically to “Someone to Talk To,” she writes, “I felt I was reading a workshop exercise by someone who loved Graham Greene, without being anything like Graham Greene.” Jim Shepard of the New York Times Book Review , in an otherwise positive review of the collection, complains briefly of Eisenberg’s “fondness for pointedly illuminating chance encounters with eccentrics, who through their ramblings focus the stories’ themes while bringing the usually somewhat baffled protagonists up to speed.” Though he does not mention the character Beale by name as one of these eccentrics, the description certainly fits. Many reviews of the collection as a whole, however, were glowing. David Wiegand of the Francisco Chronicle writes, “Deborah Eisenberg . . . seems incapable of writing a bad short story.” Shepard affirms, “These stories are spirited and masterly road maps through sad and forbidding and desolate terrain.”
Eisenberg is known for her offbeat characters, and reviewers often praised her skill in making them both believable and sympathetic. As Wiegand puts it, “So skilled is Eisenberg at developing these characters as engagingly ‘ordinary’ that we find ourselves identifying with them without realizing how we got there.” Caldwell of Boston Globe agrees: “Much of the emotional weight and delivery of Eisenberg’s stories owes a debt to her characters. . . . people just two inches weirder than the strange guy next door, or slightly more lunatic than all of us know ourselves to be.” Eisenberg began her writing career as a playwright, and this is most noticeable in her deft handling of dialogue. Her characters speak in short, pithy fragments, pausing to grope for words, sometimes changing subjects in mid-thought, just as people do in real life. As Wendy Brandmark writes in her review of All Around Atlantis in the Times Literary Supplement , “Her characters speak with the cut and thrust of a taut screenplay; yet they sound completely natural and real.” Caldwell says in her review, “The dialogue, reflecting those early dramatist’s skills, is crisp and revelatory.” All Around Atlantis , which was released in 1997, was considered by many critics to be Eisenberg’s best collection yet. After that she continued to write award-winning short stories, and in 2006, she released another collection entitled Twilight of the Superheroes Pryor has a B.A. from the University of Michigan and twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In this essay, Pryor compares the characters Aaron Shapiro and Beale regarding how they communicate with others.
Aaron Shapiro, the protagonist of “Someone To Talk To,” has a communication problem. From the opening of the story—an awkward farewell with his longtime girlfriend—to the final scenes of the story outside the concert hall, Shapiro is alternately unable to communicate or prohibited from communicating. When in the course of the story, he is interviewed by a journalist who cannot stop talking, Shapiro’s inability to speak up is dramatized literally. In fact, through juxtaposition with Beale, the journalist, Aaron Shapiro’s sense of being eclipsed becomes more obvious. It begins with Caroline’s departure. In the opening scene, Aaron is watching the woman with whom he has spent six years of his life walk out his door for the last time. In the entire scene of farewell, Aaron manages just ten words, two of which are spoken to the cat. As he reminisces about the downward spiral of their relationship, the reader learns that “Recently, he’d been silent for whole evenings.” When Caroline would call him from work to say she would be late, “her words floated in the air like dying petals while he listened, reluctant to hang up but unable to think of anything to say.” He finally lashes out at her and her hollow reassurances (“Things will work out”), the first honest communication of his feelings, but it comes out far more harshly than he intended: “Was that his voice? Were those his words? He could hardly believe it himself.”
Ironically, Caroline sounds the death knell for the relationship when she utters the words, “Listen Aaron. . . . We have to talk.” Relocation to Latin America does nothing for Aaron’s communication skills. To complicate matters, he finds himself surrounded by people who, like Caroline, really do not care for anything he has to say, unless it is complimentary and positive. Richard Penwad is so eager to be free of him altogether, that when he speaks of Aaron’s departure, “he already, Shapiro noticed, looked relieved.” Enter Beale, the English radio journalist. Beale is Shapiro’s opposite in terms of communication; while his listening skills could use some improvement, he is never at a loss for words. He speaks almost incessantly throughout the interview with Aaron, who is hard-pressed to fill even the few brief gaps Beale allows him in the conversation. Even the physical description of Beale makes him sound like some sort of communication device: “Beale’s head was an interesting space-ship shape. Colorless and sensitive-looking filaments sprouted from it, and his ears looked like receiving devices. Sensors, transmitters, Shapiro thought.” Interestingly, Beale possesses something else that Shapiro seems to lack: passion. While one tends to think of concert pianists as people with a passion for, even obsession with, their art, Aaron is obsessed only with the money he is not making with his career. Aaron enjoys playing the GarciaGutierrez concerto, but what he enjoys are “the athletic challenge of its surface complexities. . . . the response of the audience.” Beale, on the other hand, is all passion and little reason, clearly unconcerned with appearances (as evidenced by his stained suit).
He delights in the sensual: the food and drink at lunch with Shapiro cause him to burst into joyous little exclamations (“oh! . . . pork pie!”). He waxes poetic about the beauty of the country, its history, its people.
Shapiro’s lack of passion is likely the cause of his stalled career. “The qualities he greatly admired and envied in other pianists—varieties of a profound musicianship which focussed the attention on the ear, hearing, rather than on the hand, executing—were ones he lacked.” Diligent practice brings him “just the faintest flicker of heat in his crystalline touch.” This flaw in his musicianship is, in its own way, one more failure to communicate, to command the attention of his audience and help them feel the music.
Though Shapiro seems deeply affected by Caroline’s departure, his reveries about her are not those of a man passionately in love; he reflects more on her failings than her positive qualities. As with his career, he seems to be mourning the loss of the relationship not because he was so passionate about it, but simply for the status it brought him. Because Caroline was initially attracted to him because of the glamour of his ascending career, losing her is one more indication “that success, the sort of success Penwad’s letter seemed to promise for him again, was something he could just, finally, forget about.” Shapiro’s choice of Caroline as a partner indicates that he is actually avoiding passion in his life. The descriptions of Caroline paint a picture of a woman who is delicate, frail, pale, and patrician, with a cool elegance about her. It is ironic that straight from his breakup with the icy Caroline, Shapiro travels to Latin America, a region known for the fire and passion of its people.
Many parallels can be drawn between Shapiro and the poor native Indians in the story. The Indians have no voice in the society in which they live; they have been silenced by the oppressive military regime in power. Just as the hall in which Shapiro plays—a hall built by the government in power— distorts and suppresses the music he performs, the government of this country has done everything in its power to prevent the rest of the world from hearing the full story of what has been done to these people. In addition, this is not the first time these people have been robbed of their voice; as Beale explains to Shapiro: “You know, the Indians here had simply everything at one time. A calendar. A written language—centuries, centuries, centuries before the Spanish came. . . . and the Spanish actually destroyed it all. . . . The written language was actually destroyed, do you see.” Every attempt by the Indians to communicate their plight is thwarted, even in this description of the city on the night of the concert: “A slow continuous combustion of garbage sent up bulletins of ruin from the hut-blistered gorges, which were quickly snuffed out by the fragrance drifting from the garlanded slopes of the Gold Zone.”
The wealthy patrons of the arts follow Caroline’s example, with a stubborn insistence that all is happy and pleasant and a determination to ignore any evidence to the contrary. Though Shapiro is repulsed by Beale’s slovenly manners and lack of tact, at the same time, he is drawn to him, perhaps fascinated by the ease with which Beale expresses himself, the stream-of-consciousness monologue he maintains almost continuously. Shapiro recognizes in Beale the passion for life that has eluded him in both his art and his relationships. As he listens to Beale speak into his tape recorder at the end of the story, he seems to experience, vicariously, the same sensations that Beale is experiencing: “Beale stretched himself out in the trough, tucking the tape recorder under his head like a pillow, and a delicious sensation of rest poured into Shapiro’s body.” Similarly, when Beale describes a scene from his imagination, Shapiro closes his eyes and experiences it himself: “Yes, he could hear it, the chatter, the pointless chatter. And smell the orange-scented garden.” The reader begins to feel that with Beale as his coach, Shapiro could break out of the numb trance he has been wrapped in and experience the emotion and passion he has been avoiding for so many years.
Laura Pryor, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Deborah Eisenberg, Published by Gale Group, 2006