Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories
by Deborah Eisenberg
New York State of Mind
A review by Mona Simpson
Unlike the book-every-other-year writers whose minds we seem to know in each elaborate
fold and crease, and to whom we can almost feel we have a subscription, there
are those -- like Deborah Eisenberg, whose short stories used to appear from time
to time in The New Yorker -- who publish only rarely and whose books we
wait for. Eisenberg's fourth book of new work, Twilight of the Superheroes,
seems to have been the longest in the making (nine years have passed since the
publication of All
Around Atlantis). The six stories here feel especially new, perhaps because
they didn't appear in large-circulation magazines (what's up over there
at The New Yorker?). They are her most ambitious and beautiful works to
date. Can it be true that with talent, effort, the ability to keep at it, and
a quite short haircut one eventually becomes great? It has worked for Deborah
Eisenberg isn't always the most accessible writer. Her stories are often
less than linear in structure, and she's said she has no idea what the
word "epiphany" means ("There's something about the idea
of it that I simply reject"). And she has a knack for the ungracious character
-- the one who gets kicked under the table, argued with, and often sighed over.
She's able to present such people in all their irascibility and mess, and
then somehow -- like those psychologists who prove that pessimists have a more
accurate view of reality than their optimistic and normal counterparts -- by
the end, reveal the cranks' greater humanity and even make the "better"
characters seem cardboard in comparison.
Whereas Alice Munro can, by rubbing together words in a sentence, bring to
life rural schoolteachers and librarians as they lived in the last century,
Deborah Eisenberg is consummately urban, as nonchalantly and inadvertently sophisticated
as Proust. And as the last best hope for people who couldn't manage -- much
less flourish -- anywhere else, New York City glows in these stories. Although
romantic (the Statue of Liberty is actually invoked earnestly, by one of the
young characters), Eisenberg's New York is resolutely not Henry James's or George
Plimpton's city. It is a haven for the deracinated, who grew up elsewhere and
found their way there, to make an imitation of home. The city's glamour has
always figured as a palpable presence in Eisenberg's stories. This from her
first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency:
At the sight of the cloakroom, with its rows of expensive, empty coats that
called up a world in which generous, broad-shouldered men, and women in marvelous
dresses (much like the one I myself happened to be wearing), inclined toward
each other on banquettes, I was pierced by a feeling so keen and unalloyed
it might have been called -- I don't know what it might have been called.
It felt like -- well, grief ... actually.
Of course, this new collection, published in 2006, must in some way gesture
toward 9/11. The title story offers the most delicate, tangential, accurate,
and mysterious treatment of the event that I've read so far.
Eisenberg's stories include glimpses of some of the precious few happy marriages
in contemporary fiction, though the couple in the title story is seen happily
only in recollection -- the husband is now grieving for the loss of his wife.
We see her nephew remembering his first impression of them.
Nathaniel was eight or nine when his aunt and uncle had come out to the Midwest
to visit the family, lustrous and clever and comfortable and humorous and
affectionate with one another, in their soft, stylish clothing. They'd
brought books with them to read. When they talked to each other -- and they
habitually did -- not only did they take turns, but also, what one
said followed on what the other said. What world could they have come
That world, of course, was New York City.
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