- Twilight of the Superheroes
With Twilight of the Superheroes, her first collection since All Around Atlantis (1997), Deborah Eisenberg pays new visits to her familiar territory. Previous reviewers have commented on the resemblances between Eisenberg's characters and J. D. Salinger's. Here, too, are dissipated New Yorkers, fractured families and disaffected youths. Eisenberg has not lost any of her skill at crafting characters that in their speech and mannerisms evince states of torturous self-consciousness. In her fiction she shows us how these highly sensitive persons maintain—and even cultivate—obliviousness toward the world around them.
Eisenberg's stories have touchstones in reality. "Twilight of the Superheroes" explores the apolitical, everyday fallout of disaster. In the first of the story's many subtitled segments, Nathaniel, the younger of the story's two protagonists, narrates a yarn to his imagined grandchildren. He tells these future progeny about the "miracle" of Y2K. After months of planning for the disaster, "nothing happened! We held our breath. . . . And there was nothing! It was a miracle. Over the face of the earth, from east to west and back again, nothing catastrophic happened at all." There is wistfulness in his recounting of this false alarm: Nathaniel and his roommates, subletting in lower Manhattan, witness the attacks of September 11th at close range. Afterward, the friends [End Page 154] begin to lose their "superpowers"—the ability to exploit systemic weaknesses, the ability to evoke pity from others—talents that Nathaniel has chronicled in his comic book, Passivityman. Bereft of their defense mechanisms, they must face what "had been hidden by the curtain . . . all those irrepressibly, murderously angry people." Meanwhile, Nathaniel's Uncle Lucien daydreams of his own schoolboy interest in ancient Rome, recollecting "the thrilling crash as the bloated empire tumbles down."
The fragility of contemporary American domesticity is a theme that runs through the collection. The families in this piece are broken apart by mental illness, dementia, sexual awakenings, violence and differences in ideology. "The Flaw in the Design" opens with its female first-person narrator returning from an assignation; as the piece develops, we see that her college-aged son, Oliver, is going through what appears to be a phase of moral outrage toward his father, an energy developer. As the narrator recalls the family's years spent in developing countries, Oliver's problems begin to seem symptomatic of something larger; his manic moods and dinner-time insinuations suggest that he's seen through to the dark heart of their comfortable home.
Kristina, the heroine of "Window," is of an age with Oliver, but finds herself keeping house and playing mother to her new boyfriend's beautiful, obstinate son. One of the strongest stories in the collection, "Window" invites comparison to Eisenberg's earlier masterpiece, "What It Was Like, Seeing Chris" (1986). In both pieces, young women in limbo are suddenly animated by the attentions of older men. Eisenberg does some of her best writing in portraying these difficult, dangerous relationships. Kristina's understanding of her boyfriend—a sort of neo-Transcendentalist character—and of the position in which she's put herself evolves gradually. The odds and ends of family that she can claim coalesce at the end of the story into a unit that is nuclear only in its potential to destruct.
"'The sun is setting, you guys at the helm,'" remarks one of Eisenberg's radicals to a suited businessman. On the whole, Twilight of the Superheroes presents persuasive evidence that our American superpowers of entrepreneurship and optimism are dwindling. However, the images of decline and extinction throughout the collection are mitigated somewhat by the near-constant presence of children in these stories. Eisenberg's young characters, despite their flaws (they are overly precocious, abandoned, depraved), demonstrate that even an ailing society has the power to regenerate. The frankness of these characters is often disquieting; they are asserting that they will not participate in their elders' cherished obliviousness.