Aware of how much has been said about Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Twilight of the Superheroes (imposing masses of blurbs sit at both the front and back of my copy) I’m going to do my best to offer a few new thoughts on this fine little book.
First of all, I direct your attention to the word twilight in the title; implying repose laced with somberness and perhaps the beginning of a long, hard night (or, maybe, just a pleasant sleep until a bright morning), twilight is exactly the word to sum up the feel of each of these stories. If the stories were moments in time, they would be twilight, that moment when darkness looms and when you just sit there and try to think as life passes through you. In this collection, Eisenberg’s stories tend to be more embodiments of a certain feeling than narratives with movement, and the characters are almost always people so pensive that they border on inert. Generally, they are mulling over their cheerless lives. And always, there’s the suggestion that bad as things are right now, they might just get worse.
This feeling of dread is what I think brings these stories together and gives them their unique character and continuity across the collection. Except for one character (more on her in a bit) none of the people in Eisenberg’s stories have anything particularly bad waiting for them in their futures, and yet, it’s hard to read these stories and not feel that some kind of tragedy is just within reach of everyone. Although at times Eisenberg very explicitly links this vertigo to the national mood of America post-9/11—for instance, there’s a mordant bit about a teenage daughter scared witless by some loud noise overhead and her parents who tell her to calm down, that it’s just a police chopper out searching for a criminal somewhere in the vicinity—it’s also very clear that Eisenberg is dread as something that’s been going on much longer than the last six years. For the adults in this collection (and the divide between adults and their children is very clearly felt throughout) the dread drudged up in the wake of 9/11 just seems to be another variety of dread to file alongside all the others that have already defined their lives.
Eisenberg is very good at conveying the different species of dread, at defining each character’s particular permutation as separate from all the other kinds of dread found here. Within a few pages multiple characters have been sketched, their relationships to one another have been defined; the space thereafter is often dedicated to an elaboration of whatever kind of dread is being experienced in this particular story. And there is quite a lot. We have: youngsters aching at the world’s injustice; youngsters aching at their own passive futures; old people aching at the loss of youth; middle-aged people aching at their inability to give their life a direction; mothers aching for the children they can’t comprehend; adults acing at their impotence in the face of life’s questions; and everyone making space for the permanent ache that something really, really bad is going to happen just a little bit in the future. It’s no coincidence that the first three pages of this collection are dedicated to the story of a “miracle” in which the miracle is that nothing bad happens.
All this dread can get a bit deadening. The two weakest stories in this collection (the last two, “Revenge of the Dinosaurs” and “The Flaw in the Design”) lack the kind of thorny dialectic that gives life to Eisenberg’s other stories. Instead of providing competing systems of thought that give rise to nuanced conversations and potent symbols, these last two stories just give us a bunch of people trapped together in the same malaise. One might credit Eisenberg for her courage in showing us unabated ugliness (“Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” for instance, is the real-time story of middle-class siblings bickering over material questions while their grandmother ebbs into death), but to me they feel a tad too simple for someone of Eisenberg’s abilities. The fact is that people like this probably do exist, and Eisenberg’s renditions of them feel more or less correct, but I don’t see the value in making them the centerpiece of a story. In the end, these pieces feel a bit preachy, like cautionary tales about the pitfalls of lifestyles that we had probably already figured out were lifestyles we didn’t want any part of.
We can contrast the single-mindedness of the last two stories with the conflictedness of “Window,” the story that I think is the most challenging one in the collection. It’s a kind of quest tale of a young lady named Kristina. A year out of high school, she flees her hometown for another town because she thinks has a nice name. True to form, the town turns out to be an Edenic sort of place of “white houses and gentle hills,” a “tender, miniature world.” Kristina gets a job as a waitress and moves in with a gentle couple a few years older than her, and for a while everything is perfect. But then, suddenly, the couple is five months pregnant and they’re going to need the room that Kristina is living in. Too poor to find another room in the community, Kristina marries a man named Eli who occasionally comes into town, and he takes her to his basic and isolated cabin deep in the woods. The marriage gets off to a fine start, but Kristina has problems handling Eli’s toddler son (left to him after his previous wife ran out for unknown reasons). It also slowly dawns on Kristina that in the cabin she’s a bit of a kept woman. Her isolation and suffering at the hand of Eli’s child get worse and worse until, almost instantaneously, she defies the baby, earning his respect, and defies Eli, earning a black eye. Kristina is given to know that something similar happened to the previous wife, and, though Eli is a model of repentance after hitting Kristina, she runs out on him, kidnaps Eli’s son, “steals” the car of the couple she originally lived with (they kind of let her take it but call it stolen for legal reasons), and ends up at her half-sister’s house, a depressing sort of place that’s reminiscent of the life she originally fled from at the start of the story. All this is told to us in flashback, and the story begins and ends with brief framing sections of Kristina’s first night in her half-sister’s house, where she’s on the run, low on money, and caring for Eli’s son, who has contracted an illness.
It’s impossible to do this story’s intricacies justice in the space of a paragraph, but the above should give a decent idea of what’s at stake in “Window.” In the space of just over 40 pages, Eisenberg has given us a detailed account of a young woman’s fall from youth and emergence into adulthood, while also presenting us with some difficult questions: Why did she take the baby? Was she right to take him or not? What is the significance of the mysterious illness Eli’s son has contracted, and what’s the link between this baby and the one that precipitates Kristina’s exit from her youth?
In its general sweep, “Window” gives us a lot to think about, but in its particulars the story is also quite thought-provoking. Consider, for instance, everything bound up in these lines of dialog as Kristina is driving with Eli to his cabin, just after their marriage.
He reached over and unpinned her hair.
This is a very crazy thing to do, she said.
Which is crazier? he said. This, or not this?
She must have been smiling, because he’d laughed. What a skeptic, he’d said. So, it’s a risk, yes? Okay, but a risk of what? Look, here’s the alternative, we meet, we like each other, we say hello, we say goodbye. Not there’s an actual risk. That’s pure recklessness. We’re scared—is that so bad? Because when you’re scared, you can be pretty sure you’re on to something.
On one level, this dialog presents is a recognition of what’s at stake in the choices we do and don’t make—that every behind decision we make is some great risk, whether we see it or not. This fact is a veritable thematic melody that reappears constantly in “Window,” both before and after the marriage. (The decision to marry, itself, seems to be the most profound repetition of this theme.) By the end of the story, as Kristina is perched on a precipice and keeps thinking she sees Eli coming to get her through a window, she’s well aware of the risk we’re constantly courting in life.
But there’s more here. Look at when Eli says “when you’re scared, you can be pretty sure you’re on to something.” Is this an implicit approval of Kristina’s future decision to kidnap Eli’s son? (Because she’s pretty damned scared at the end of the story.) Also, consider that this bit of dialog is pondering concepts of normalcy—which choice is crazier? The choice to marry or to not? The choice to kidnap or not? The choice to look risk in the face or pretend it doesn’t exist?
At its finest, Twilight of the Superheroes bristles with these kinds of moments, but I think the weakness Eisenberg shows here is that the majority of these stories don’t have these moments of triumph. Excepting “Window” and parts of “Some Other, Better Otto,” Twilight of the Superheroes lacks mystery. Let me put it like this—most good books have a very well-defined, built-in structure, but it’s usually only on the second or third reading that such a structure begins to become visible. (And for some books, like Gravity’s Rainbow, the structure is almost impossible to see without a guide.) In Twilight, by contrast, the structure of each story is fairly easy to pick up while you’re reading; you don’t even need a second pass. Items that are destined to become symbols are clearly marked off as symbols; the system that each character represents is apparent almost from the very beginning; the conflicts that Eisenberg explores tend to be fairly common and are easily identified (though she does explore them to great depth). To put it another way, this would be a good collection for teaching a creative writing class because it’s so easy to see exactly what’s going on in each story. Reading Twilight, I got the feeling that if you gave this collection to ten intelligent readers, you’d be likely to get the same ten readings.
This is the reason, incidentally, why I think this collection received such unambiguous praise when it was published: Eisenberg’s very fine craftsmanship is always clearly on display here, and while we’re reading it’s a very pleasant experience. Though these stories are very long compared to most stories, they never feel long, and the entire book passes by very quickly. Everything seems to fit satisfyingly together and make sense. And though I think the story “Twilight of the Superheroes” will be read for decades as a brilliant evocation of what it was like in America at a certain point in our history, I don’t think this story contains a whole lot of mystery. A book with a few rough edges to sort out, with a little more difficulty, would almost surely have been more polarizing.
Eisenberg compensates for this by taking these easy-to-recognize pieces and putting them into interesting combinations. As with the piece of dialog taken from “Window,” many of the dialogs in Twilight of the Superheroes can be read very deeply, and this is due to the skill with which Eisenberg brings together the systems represented by her characters. She takes characters who view the world from very different places and then makes their conversations both conversational and philosophical. (Within Eisenberg’s sprawling stories, the dialogs are noticeably minimalist.) The pleasure in this isn’t in interpreting just what happened or what X means, but in deciding what the morality of each story consists of. We don’t argue over what the presence of a certain character means, but rather over which character is right, or who is more sympathetic.
All in all, I liked these stories a great deal simply because Eisenberg is a brilliant writer (noticing the occasional, minor shortcoming in her style feels like discovering an Easter egg) and because the stories in Twilight of the Superheroes are such wonderful experiences. Though I may only return to two or three stories in this collection, that’s still more than for most collections I read. And moreover, Eisenberg simply evoking is better than most short story writers trying their darndest to create significance.
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