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Harper's Magazine
Friday, July 16th, 2010
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Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories

by Deborah Eisenberg

Fallen Boundaries: Deborah Eisenberg's big short stories

A review by Jonathan Dee

Over the last two decades, Deborah Eisenberg has built an estimable reputation by marginalizing herself even within the precincts of literary fiction, by disregarding -- more out of idiosyncrasy than rebellion -- whatever it was that writers of her time and place were supposed or expected to do. She began writing fiction only in her late thirties; her first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, was published in 1986, in a literary landscape whose dominant aesthetic held that a short story ought to be long enough to meet the requirements of intelligibility and no longer. Famously exemplified in the work of Raymond Carver, its most conspicuous technique was a Hemingway-redux effort to wring maximum impact from all that the author was able to leave unsaid. Much was made of the stylistic spareness of the so-called dirty realists, but the real parsimony at work was psychological. Character was apprehended primarily through surface detail (often the characters' habits of consumption), and emotional response tended to be pushed into the realm of mystery via the author's refusal to engage with interiority at all.

Onto these plains Eisenberg arrived with short stories that regularly broke the thirty- or forty-page barrier: exercises in the craziness of deep subjectivity, proudly unstreamlined, given over to the long, patient, psychological inhabitation of one character, one consciousness. A kind of prototypical Eisenberg narrator emerged from those earliest stories, a woman (or girl) of such compulsive critical intelligence that the dead weight of received ideas in even the most quotidian social interactions could bewilder her. The story "Days," for instance, takes the form of a thirty-page journal kept by a woman who gives up smoking and starts jogging at the local Y, where the casual remarks of various gym rats send her into paroxysms of overanalysis. In the title story of Transactions, a woman travels to Montreal intending to confront her occasional lover of almost ten years; instead, he skips town after her arrival to see his ex-wife and ill son, leaving her alone in the strange limbo of his apartment, pretending to a domesticity that will never come to pass. Some stories are more overtly comic than others, but all share a commitment to a voice entirely faithful to, and inseparable from, the restless oddness of its central character; each story feels not suggestive or ambiguous but exhaustive, assiduous, complete.

Twenty years later, as Eisenberg publishes Twilight of the Superheroes, her fourth and most fully realized collection, the literary fashion for austerity has given way to a reengagement with the big, the discursive, the ambitious, to a more copious treatment of character and its points of connection to a larger world. But the big-canvas approach that distinguishes this moment in American fiction has a couple of very non-Eisenbergian characteristics. For one, that "larger world" often turns out to be the world of popular culture: novels such as David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude are virtual mix tapes of artistic referents -- like most mix tapes, sometimes brilliant and sometimes indulgent. Although Eisenberg's urge to place her characters in a social context is much more political, the political dimension of her fiction is less defining than the fact that her larger world is always the interior one, the unmapped psychic territory that crisis brings to light.

Even for the short-story writers with whom we most associate the technical depth of novelists -- Alice Munro, say, or William Trevor -- that ambitious broadening of scope tends to take them in the direction of omniscience. Stories like Munro's "White Dump" or Trevor's "Angels at the Ritz" are founded upon their authors' access to several perspectives, narrated benevolently from without. The characters themselves move in a kind of darkness dispellable only by the big-picture understanding available to writer and reader. Within their work, these authors see as God sees; their wisdom, however sympathetic, thus distinguishes them from the partially informed experience, with its attendant comedy or pain, of the characters themselves.

Eisenberg rejects this knowingness, this access to any intelligence that operates over and above that of her characters. For her, the path to understanding is through a deeper and more seamless commitment to the rendering of one character's state of mind. Her expansiveness is not a matter of multiplying perspectives (there are, by my count, a total of three stories in her oeuvre in which a second point of view briefly appears) but of honoring subjectivity, doing full justice to the limited vision of one person in one vital situation. In this way, it seems a measure of her genius that her stories are as short as they are.

One of the great pleasures of Eisenberg's work is the violence it does to the old chestnut that a short story's artfulness is best measured by how much is left out; on the contrary, what impresses about her stories is all that she dares to throw into them. They are as unafraid of digression as most novels, which makes them seem -- relative to other stories especially -- organic, spontaneous, unconstructed: in a word, lifelike. "Some Other, Better Otto," from Twilight of the Superheroes, is the story of a man striving in middle age to maintain the "viable, if not pristine, degree of estrangement from his family" that he feels is a necessary condition of remaining sane. Most troubling to him is the plight of his apparently bipolar sister Sharon. In her youth, Sharon was a precocious math student; most writers would register that poignant detail and move on, but Eisenberg is faithful to the meandering sadness of Otto's own train of thought:

A tremendous capacity for metaphor, Otto assumed it was; a tremendous sensitivity to the deep structures of the universe. Uncanny. It seemed no more likely that there would be human beings thus equipped than human beings born with satellite dishes growing out of their heads.

He himself was so literal minded he couldn't understand the simplest scientific or mathematical formulation. Plain old electricity, for example, with its amps and volts and charges and conductivity! Metaphors, presumably -- metaphors to describe some ectoplasmic tiger in the walls just spoiling to shoot through the wires the instant the cage door was opened and out into the bulb. And molecules! What on earth were people talking about? If the table was actually just a bunch of swarming motes, bound to one another by nothing more than some amicable commonality of form, then why didn't your teacup go crashing through it?

This kind of roominess can have the paradoxical effect of making her work seem at times almost artless; but that's because where other writers and readers are used to looking for the art of the short story, Eisenberg sees only artifice. The snappy first sentence, for instance, the self-conscious construction by means of which the reader is "drawn in": Eisenberg's stories tend to begin instead in an offhand, disorienting welter of names, reminiscent of the practice of throwing children into pools to bring out their latent ability to swim. "Some Other, Better Otto" opens with this:

I don't know why I committed us to any of those things," Otto said. "I'd much prefer to be working or reading, and you'll want all the time you can get this week to practice."

"It's fine with me." William said. "I always like to see Sharon. And we'll survive the evening with your -- "

Otto winced.

"Well, we will," William said. "And don't you want to see Naomi and Margaret and the baby as soon as they get back?"

Sharon is Otto's sister, William is his partner, and Naomi and Margaret are their lesbian neighbors who have gone to China to adopt a child; it takes the reader a few pages to work all this out, which can be frustrating. But a separation of the author's intelligence from the character's consciousness would be implied by certain reader-friendly indulgences at a story's outset, and those are indulgences Eisenberg declines to make. No concession is made, in other words, to the idea that some theoretical someone is being narrated to: the story's voice is its voice, and if you are patient you will latch on to it.

In their approach to plot, the stories are wonderfully unbusinesslike. "Like It or Not" is nominally the record of one weekend in the life of a woman named Kate, who has accepted an invitation to visit an old college roommate in Italy. While there, she winds up taking an entirely unexpected trip along the coast with a courtly older man whom she hardly knows -- the fruit of one awkward moment in a cocktail-party conversation, when she felt obliged to accept an invitation he felt obliged to offer. Nothing that happens to Kate on this trip is of great significance in itself, though all of it is colored by the fugitive emotions attending the recent news that her ex-husband, the father of her college-age children -- who left her, many years ago, for another man -- is now terminally ill. The sights of the Italian coast, ancient yet unfamiliar, only heighten Kate's sensitivity to the impingement of the past upon the present, as she tries to work out whether and why the death of her children's father still feels to her like loss:

And from all the years with him? You couldn't feel love once it was gone. What you could feel for a long time was the sorrow of its fading, like the burning afterimage of a setting sun. And then that was gone, too. What she would remember for the rest of her life was the fact, at least, of the shocking pain they'd been forced to inflict on one another. Eventually when they'd touched, it was like touching a wound.

She and her host, an antiquities dealer named Harry, stop at a hotel, have dinner, are accosted by a loud American couple and their two children, and, in the end, when something rather surprising does happen, it doesn't happen to Kate. The story puts a simple chronological frame around a period of heightened emotion, heightened perception, in Kate's own life; within that frame, time and events are treated somewhat democratically, as if to say that any stricter principle of exclusion would be presumptuous -- if not untrue to life itself, then untrue to one's capacity to make sense of it as it's being lived. All kinds of things occur within an Eisenberg story that have nothing to do with resolution at all; they are part of what the characters have to live through, and we are left to parse it all for significance, just as they are.

A character in Andre Gide's great novel The Counterfeiters takes issue with one of fiction's hoariest compositional strategies:

'A slice of life,' the naturalist school said. The great defect of that school is that it always cuts its slice in the same direction; in time, lengthwise. Why not in breadth? Or in depth? As for me I should like not to cut at all. Please understand; I should like to put everything into my novel. I don't want any cut of the scissors to limit its substance at one point rather than at another."

A difficult idea to bring to bear on the art of the short story, whose foundational principle would seem to be one of selection, but the sheer capaciousness of an Eisenberg story demands a kind of patience not normally expected of readers (and writers) of a more conventionally shaped narrative. She is a master of the multi-character dialogue scene, with all of its awkward stops and starts; every story in Twilight contains at least one great set piece in this line, conversations marbled with moments of discomfort, misunderstanding, and inconsequence. All but impossible to quote at appropriate length, here is a moment from the family's accosting of Kate and Harry in "Like It or Not":

The waiter was already prepared with a cigar for Harry, undoubtedly in accord with ancient custom. 'Here, please,' Mr. Reitz said. 'One of those for me, too.'

'Oh, dear -- ' Mrs. Reitz fluttered toward Kate. 'I know men have to have them, but I never get used to them, do you?'

'I never get used to anything -- ' Kate was startled by her own swaggering tone. 'I mean, except for the things that aren't happening any longer.'

'That's an interesting way of putting it . . .' Mrs. Reitz said cautiously. [. . . ]

'Ooch,' Mr. Reitz said, patting the prairielike region of his stomach. 'It's impossible to speak after such a meal. But, really, have you no good advice for us? Saturday, or Sunday, to Rome.'

'Whichever you choose -- ' Harry exhaled with pleasure -- 'you will wish you had chosen the other.'

We are accustomed, in most short fiction, to a denser, more functional sort of dialogue, tasked with moving the plot where the author wants it to go. But plot itself, to Eisenberg, is a contrivance that would impose upon time's ungovernability in the lives of her characters. In "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," two adult siblings generate little more than anger as they try to discuss what is to be done with their grandmother, a once fearsome woman felled by a couple of strokes who now watches TV all day in the company of a nurse. They never come close to solving anything; it's the anger, one realizes, that's the real subject, that and the air of sinister disjunction that seems to spill into the room from the always-muted TV:

Happy laundry danced across the screen on a line. Little kids ate ice cream. A handsome man pumped gasoline into a car, jauntily twirled the cap back on the gas tank, and turned to wink at me. . . . Then it was the blond newscaster again, bracketing a few seconds in which a large structure burst slowly open like a flower, spraying debris and, kind of, limbs, maybe. The blond newscaster was probably getting injections herself. I'd been noticing lines maybe trying to creep up around near my eyes, lately. But even when I was a little child I felt that people who worry about that sort of thing are petty.

"Sometimes, when I write a story," Eisenberg once said, "what I want the story to do is to convey a very specific and usually very peculiar feeling. And the narrative is the conveyance. That is, in some cases, I'm not terribly interested in the narrative itself; I've simply chosen that particular narrative because of what I think it can do." The notion of narrative not as something to be worked out on its own terms but as a "conveyance" of a particular feeling is a technique that could prove disastrously precious in the hands of a lesser writer, and it goes a long way toward explaining one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of her work: the fact that her endings tend not to end much of anything at all. They seem simultaneously well honed and arbitrary. "Some Other, Better Otto," ends, quite hauntingly, on almost the same note of agony with which it began -- as if to say that the cost to Otto of preserving that emotional distance from his family is paid continually and is beyond the reach of any narrative machinery to resolve. "Window" tells the story of an abused woman who has grown so attached to the young son of her abuser that she kidnaps him and hits the road; no authorial signal is given as to when or how badly this flight might end. "The Flaw in the Design" is a spooky portrait of a suburban family on a precipice: the son, whose adolescent acting-out seems to have crossed the border into serious depression, hates the father, who may be implicated in the financial wrongdoing of an associate now on trial; the mother, when not assuring them both that everything will be fine, is picking up strangers for sex. That precipice is where Eisenberg leaves them. What keeps these stories from insufficiency is that they do not just name-check the characters' troubles (gay ex-husband, obnoxious family); they make the effort to build these emotional conditions from the ground up, so that by the time Eisenberg is done, the reader has internalized her own conviction that the intensity of these particular states of mind would only be diminished by any sort of resolution that might be grafted onto them.

There has long been a subcategory of Eisenberg's stories for which the crudest diagnostic term would be "political." The genesis of these pieces seems to have been a series of trips she took to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador in the 1980s, during the era of especially vicious American malfeasance. Whereas her earliest stories tended to be set either in New York City or a day trip away, her later works soon began venturing much farther into America's geopolitical back yard; the very title of her second collection, Under the 82nd Airborne, seemed like an announcement of intent to widen the scope of her inquiry. Both that book and the subsequent All Around Atlantis are dotted with stories in which Americans travel to unnamed Central American countries and have their horizons broadened at either the literal or the metaphorical point of a gun. The stories bear her signature eccentric gifts: the trippy multicharacter conversations, the narration that moves to the rhythms of thought without ever settling for the colloquial, the absence of easy resolution. And the indictment at the heart of all of them, the insistence that as Americans we are all actively involved in a solipsistic effort to keep on not knowing about things we really have no excuse not to know about, is certainly correct -- by which I don't mean politically correct but actually correct.

It is somewhat confounding, then, that these should be her least effective stories. True, they are more than usually talky, and the conversations tend to gather around themes, to animate types of lives rather than the lives themselves. "Holy Week," which contrasts the grim observations of a writer for a high-end travel magazine with the upbeat copy he robotically produces ("Linger over a snack and a frosty drink while listening to the music of a live marimba band"), culminates in a stilted, expository blowup between the writer and his girlfriend:

Because don't you get it? I mean, this is a war, Dennis . . . I don't understand why I didn't know that. I don't understand why I haven't read about all this in the newspaper.

'In the newspaper!' I said. . . . 'You don't know why you haven't read about who you are? In the newspaper?'

Perhaps it's the very correctness of those Central American stories that ironically saps them of some of their capacity to surprise us. Or it may be that the very notion of empathy with an Other, however passionately felt, pulls against the great strength of Eisenberg's writing, its fidelity to the limitations of one consciousness.

Twilight of the Superheroes, however, integrates the political in a different way; whether it's a matter more of a change in Eisenberg's art or a change in world events is impossible to say, but the result is exhilarating. The most conspicuously engaged story in the collection is the title piece, which dares to attempt (in short-story form, no less) a kind of comprehensive meditation on the attack on the World Trade Center and its reactionary aftermath. In fact, the story encompasses even more than that, beginning shrewdly not with 9/11 but with its mirror image in the now-forgotten Y2K panic; young Nathaniel, a comic-book artist living with friends in a fancy lower Manhattan sublet secured for him by his art-dealer uncle, Lucien, imagines telling his hypothetical grandchildren the story of the great midnight when everyone feared something bad would happen but nothing did. Less than two years later, that same you're-so-lucky sublet gives Nathaniel and his friends a horribly intimate view of the attack on the World Trade Center:

It was as if there had been a curtain, a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien's delightful city. The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it. . . . The stump of the ruined tower continued to smolder far into the fall, and an unseasonable heat persisted. When the smoke lifted, all kinds of other events, which had been prepared behind a curtain, too, were revealed. Flags waved in the brisk air of fear, files were demanded from libraries and hospitals, droning helicopters hung over the city, and heavily armed policemen patrolled the parks. . . . Enemies had soared toward each other from out of the past to unite in a joyous fireball; planes had sheared through the heavy, painted curtain and from the severed towers an inexhaustible geyser had erupted. Twilight of the Superheroes is one of those rare Eisenberg stories containing a second point of view, that of Uncle Lucien, though one could make the case that the uncle and nephew are, in some ways, less like separate characters than points on a continuum: the older man who has conquered the city and become a well-off cultural prince of New York, and the younger one who aspires to that station but scrapes by while struggling to figure out exactly how the trick is done. Having been kicked out of the sublet for a few weeks while the building was scoured for toxic fallout, Nathaniel and his friends are now being kicked out again, for good, as the apartment's rich owner has decided to reclaim it. Things fall apart for Nathaniel to such a degree that he has even lost interest in his one moderately successful creation, an ironically conceived comic strip about a slacker superhero known as Passivityman.

For his own passivity has become less tenable. When Nathaniel's European girlfriend dumps him, she does so in excoriating fashion:

Oh, yes, here it's not like stuffy old Europe. . . . Here you're able to speak freely, within reason, of course, and isn't it wonderful that you all happen to want to say exactly what they want you to say? Do you know how many people you're killing over there? No, how would you? Good, just keep your eyes closed, panic, don't ask any questions, and you can speak freely about whatever you like. And if you have any suspicious-looking neighbors, be sure to tell the police. You had everything here, everything, and you threw it all away in one second.

'Please don't say "you,"' Nathaniel says weakly to her, but she ignores him. His complicity, his connectedness to acts committed in his name, is no longer some theoretical construct, of which he might choose to stay happily ignorant; it has entered his intimate life and started to rearrange it.

The events recounted in Twilight accomplished for many Americans what, say, our undermining of Nicaraguan self-rule could not: they brought the war home. For Eisenberg, the change in American life -- the way our blind spot was revealed to be not on the other side of the world but right in front of us -- unites her essential New York–ness with her equally essential capacity for political outrage. The political incursions into Twilight bear the mark not of the characters' awakened consciousness but of their lived experience. In All Around Atlantis, stories about murderous Central American rebels were juxtaposed with stories about little girls in posh New York hotels, and the connection felt forced and somewhat prescriptive; in Twilight of the Superheroes, the title story sets the tone of fallen boundaries, and in the stories that follow the specter of war is integrated into the characters' daily lives in a way that's all too credibly organic. The grandmother in "Revenge of the Dinosaurs" lives in New York; helicopters fly overhead as a kind of soundtrack to the muted violence on the TV screen, and when the narrator proposes traveling to a friend's house via subway, her young niece starts crying and says, "Don't die!" The mother in "The Flaw in the Design," without the emotional resources to arrest her son's descent into mental illness, wonders if it might have anything to do with the years they spent abroad in service to her husband's job, living in Nigeria, Burma, Ecuador, places "where there was a certain amount of hostility toward us -- not us personally, of course, but toward our culture, I suppose, as it was perceived." They are all safely back home in suburban Washington now, but no matter; even a woman in denial as deep as hers no longer needs to travel to have her eyes opened to her place in the world.

Sometimes writers, without changing what they do, seem to arrive at their moment. Eisenberg is true only to her character's perspective, and that perspective now seems truer than ever to our own. There is a certain humility in seeing only as one character sees, in standing, as the author of a fictional world, not above that world but in it. "Reading literature," she once told an interviewer, "fortifies us against a susceptibility to propaganda." In the reactionary throes of American empire, that step back from omniscience, from the author's divine right to know everything about everyone, reads surprisingly like dissent.

Jonathan Dee's fifth novel, The Privileges, was published by Random House in January of this year. His last essay for Harper's Magazine, on John Cheever, appeared in the April issue.

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