Twilight of the Superheroes: Deborah Eisenberg

In Deborah Eisenberg’s latest collection of short stories, Twilight of the Superheroes, the reader is always catching up. In more than half of the stories she starts by throwing you in the middle of a scene, sometimes by way of a line of dialogue, and introducing three or more characters in the first sentence or two. For instance, she starts Revenge of the Dinosaurs with five characters:

Hi, Barbara, I said. You’re Barbara?
Eileen, said the nurse who answered the door. Nights.
I’m the granddaughter,” I said.
I figured, Eileen said. Barbara told me you’d be showing up. So where’s that handsome brother of yours?
Bill? I said, I beat Bill? That’s a first.

Or this opening for Like it or Not:

Kate would have a little tour of the coast, Giovanna would have the satisfaction of having provided an excursion for her American houseguest without having to interrupt her own work, and the man whom everyone called Harry would have the pleasure, as Giovanna put it, of Kate’s company: demonstrably a good thing for all concerned.

By the time you’ve unraveled the relational matrix of the original characters, Eisenberg has sped off to fill in back story, to add two or three more names to the many-spoked wheel of relatives and friends, and to ruminate on generational responsibilities (Flaw in the Design) or political repercussions (Twilight of the Superheroes). If you believe, somewhere in the middle, you have finally caught up, there will be a POV shift or flashback to stagger and surprise. If this disorientation of the reader were all she offered, Eisenberg would merely be a difficult writer, not necessarily a talented one. But she ensures that by the end of her stories, you have caught up, which makes the endings resonate.

Although her endings certainly aren’t a neat bowtie. In Window, a woman moves in with a man who has a small child. When the man becomes abusive, she runs away, kidnapping his child, yet the ending forecasts nothing – whether she gets away with it, where she’s going. In Like it or Not, Kate is taken (not entirely willingly) on a sight seeing tour with Harry, but the climax doesn’t even involve her. And it ends on a soft note, which does not wrap up the story as much as it simply portrays the end of an emotionally heightened span of time in her life. With stories this long, you would expect endings to make it towards the pot-of-gold side of the narrative rainbow, to reveal a twist or character turn. But they don’t. These endings don’t cater to plot, they cater to the emotional states of the characters, nipping at a sensitive region of a character’s motivations or state of mind, commenting in an elliptical way on the essence of their internal struggles.

For example, look at the end of The Flaw in the Design, a story about a disgruntled son who blames his father for the corporate greed ruining the earth, told from the perspective of the wife who has an affair. This last paragraph shows the scene just before the first paragraph, on how they came to be having an affair:

We had taken the taxi, had stood at the desk; we had done it – the thought kept tumbling over me like pealing bells as we rose up in the elevator, our hands lightly clasped. And we were solemn, and so happy, or at least I was, as we entered our room, the beautiful room that we might as well have been the first people ever to see – elated as if by some solution, when just minutes before we’d been on the metro platform, clinging fiercely, as if before a decisive separation, the way lovers do in wartime.

Between the beginnings and endings, these six stories are extremely long, although that isn’t a criticism. It’s just that they are longer than what is conventionally expected for short stories, which means they are in the no-mans-land between short stories and novellas. In this space Eisenberg still fleshes out remarkably complete human beings, welts, warts and all. Her characters often belong to the jet-set demographic, trafficking in the exclusive regions of the country, like plush lofts in Manhattan or sight-seeing along unnamed coasts. They often are disenfranchised – from their families, from knowledge of themselves, from hope. Bearing names like Giovanna, Matsumoto, Lucien and Alma, they seem to have their complete histories and futures implied inside a few scenes, a few bits of dialogue. In Some Other, Better Otto, the protagonist Otto is a gay musician and grammar nazi who cares for a sister so brilliant she had an episode and was institutionalized, and interacts with a little girl, Portia, who refuses to talk except to the microphone of her fist. Add in six or seven additional personas with character tags of their own, as well as a thanksgiving dinner, and you have an inter-relational maelstrom of delightful proportions.

It was challenging to wrap my head around these stories. They are difficult, but that is their virtue. These are the type of stories you must read at least twice: once just to get abreast of their accomplishment, the second time to try to unravel. To truly give them justice, they deserve many more readings than that.

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