We’re reminded, on the first page of Deborah Eisenberg’s new short-story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, that “the world is full of terrifying surprises.” In the title story, four young friends must surrender the spectacular downtown apartment they’ve been subletting from a Japanese businessman, and from which—having coffee on the terrace—they witnessed the World Trade Center catastrophe. It isn’t the “terrifying surprise” of 9/11 that grips Ms. Eisenberg, but rather the emotional aftermath of the attacks: the guilt and dread that rush into the space once occupied by the ordinary, shifting concerns of the day-to-day. “[A]lways in front of you now was the sight that had been hidden by the curtain, of all those irrepressibly, murderously angry people.”
This is the literature of post-traumatic stress. The stricken New Yorkers of “Twilight of the Superheroes” are caught between the longing to forget and the wrenching specificity of memory. Some reproach themselves for the peace of mind they used to enjoy, and for what seemed the blameless delights of American plenty: new art, stylish clothing, parties. They watch in stunned silence as the attacks are made “the occasion—the pretext!—for killing and theft and legislative horrors all over the world.”
One of the young friends, Nathaniel, whose art-dealer uncle, Lucien, arranged for the sublet, draws a comic strip called Passivityman that encapsulates his vaguely progressive slacker ideals, his insistent inaction. But like Nathaniel himself, who has yet to line up a new apartment, his superhero has been drifting: His girlfriend, Princess Prudence, tries to stir Passivityman’s legendary indignation (“The U.S. Congress is selected by pharmaceutical companies, the state of Israel is run by Christian fundamentalists,” etc.), but the crime fighter seems to have lost his superpowers. “His rallying cry, No way, which once rang out over the land, demobilizing millions, has been altered by Captain Corporation’s co-optophone into, Whatever.”
The title story is so masterful, so far-reaching, that most of the other five stories in Ms. Eisenberg’s fifth collection seem tucked under its wings. One exception is the mesmerizing “Some Other, Better Otto.” More tightly constructed than “Twilight of the Superheroes,” this story traces a middle-aged Manhattan man’s sorrowful love for his schizophrenic sister, Sharon, a mathematical genius whose gift is now confined to her private musings and wall charts. Like the characters in the title story, Otto has ample reserves of guilt. Sitting in Sharon’s utilitarian apartment, eating bad cake off a plain white dish, he calls to mind his own belongings, the “special, beautiful plates” and “special, beautiful furniture.” He had hoped all that specialness reflected well on him, but now decides that “it actually served to illustrate how corroded he was, how threadbare his native resources, how impoverished his discourse with everything that lived and was human.”
The deepest pleasure in Ms. Eisenberg’s stories is their vertiginous unpredictability, like obstacle courses the author jumps and rolls and shimmies through, clasping the reader to her like an infant. Point of view shifts; time contracts and elongates. Even her most linear stories have pockets of abstraction—chatter about scientific or psychological theories, for example—that alter the texture of the prose and offer possibly specious insights. Are these baubles jewels or paste?
The most sensual, least experimental stories in the book are “Window,” in which a battered woman bolts from the forest idyll where her abusive boyfriend had imprisoned her, and “Like It or Not,” which juxtaposes a woman’s day trip to a small town in Italy with her acceptance of her ex-husband’s terminal illness. The twilight in these stories is the familiar murky ground of contemporary fiction: moral ambiguity, mixed motives, sex and self-protection pulling in turn.
New to this collection is a recurrent, Cassandra-like figure, a scorned but undimmed Passivityman who collects painful knowledge and protests American foreign policy, the war in Iraq, corporate greed and exploitation. These are not brooding liberals, like Nathaniel’s Uncle Lucien, measuring and re-measuring their personal responsibility for others’ pain; they’re self-imposed internal exiles who end up accosting strangers in elevators, spitting out facts, declaring that the end is near.
In “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the events of Sept. 11 trigger an unbearable self-examination in Lucien, who realizes that “he and even the most dissolute among his friends have glided through their lives on the assumption that the sheer fact of their existence has in some way made the world a better place.” Their broadmindedness, their donations to charity, their sunny existences, can’t make up for what they allowed to happen elsewhere. The bookend to this story is the closing piece, “The Flaw in the Design.” Here, Lucien’s regret re-emerges in a college-age boy as rage and suicidal guilt. Oliver was raised in the poor countries that his father’s company was mining, drilling and despoiling. Now he can’t stand his father or himself. “Every breath I take is a theft,” he tells his mother.
You don’t need to be an oil executive to be a foot soldier of empire. The stories in Twilight of the Superheroes force an unwelcome recognition that we all play a part in the world’s misery. Whether we play a part in its joy is less certain. Despite the somber theme, these are fearless, fierce, light-bearing stories, offered in defense of what still matters.
Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.