Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006

Deborah Eisenberg catches her characters in the midst—midthought, middenial, midtransformation. Her short stories hinge on tiny flashes of illumination, those almost imperceptible moments when characters grasp the precariousness of their ordinary lives. Sometimes these crinkles in time barely register, but as the story continues the reader becomes aware of a stain of strangeness gradually spreading across the narrative.

Eight years have passed since the appearance of Eisenberg’s third collection, All Around Atlantis, an interval crammed with cultural and political upheaval: millennial anxiety, terrorist attacks, and potentially endless war. Several of the new stories in Twilight of the Superheroes seize on current events, forcing upon her otherwise insular characters an awareness of the wider world around them. The intricate title tale braids the narratives of two unmoored men in post-9/11 New York: an irony-age slacker named Nathaniel and his jaded art dealer uncle, Lucien. Poles apart generationally, the characters seem to have emerged from entirely different fictional gestalts, like an inspired collaboration between Benjamin Kunkel and Cynthia Ozick.

Nathaniel pens a comic strip called Passivityman, about an overthinking man’s superhero who halfheartedly battles the villainous Captain Corporation. (Warned of imminent danger, Passivityman shrugs, "Sounds like it’s totally too late already.") Nathaniel idealizes the Old World of his Jewish refugee parents, its death camps and pogroms presenting stark moral choices and clear paths to heroism. Nowadays, living in a Tribeca sublet in eyeshot of the Twin Towers’ rubble, he finds it hard to muster optimism when he knows his whole world can be shaken like a snow globe. And Lucien, once enraptured and energized by art, now looks back ruefully at his youthful arrogance. "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," Eisenberg writes mordantly, skewering the notion that debating current events, voting every four years, and giving money to charity count as contributions to humankind. More grand novella than short story, "Twilight of the Superheroes" hides a remarkably complex narrative structure behind a facade of casual drift. It takes unexpected detours into the backwaters of memory but always reconverges on a New York City irrevocably changed by 9/11. Lucien believes that the hijacked planes ripped through a curtain that had buffered Americans from the reality inhabited by the rest of the planet. But instead of making life feel more urgent, day-to-day existence now feels like a mirage to Lucien. Everyone has picked up the threads they were holding before the attack, but life in the city has taken on an ersatz quality, as if its citizens were putting on a show.

Several of Eisenberg’s stories in earlier collections featured blinkered Americans stung by the consequences of their own country’s imperialism, but "The Flaw in the Design" stretches the theme too far. It tips over into plodding political commentary as a mother tries to understand why her angry son blames his parents for the world’s ills. Perhaps it’s something to do with a childhood spent trailing around the globe after his powerful father, whose job involves some kind of third-world exploitation.

Eisenberg usually exercises more control over clichés, detonating them quietly and then watching her creations scramble. Otto, the misanthropic intellectual property lawyer in "Some Other, Better Otto," disdains anything that carries even a whiff of banality, including the common courtesies and maxims that lubricate everyday social interactions. He picks away at platitudes ("One comes into the world alone" especially bugs him), frantically searching for something more precise and erudite to describe his condition. And he constantly polices his sweet-natured partner William’s language, arguing about semantics as a way to maintain his sense of superiority and distance. "I’ve spent the best years of my life with a man who doesn’t know how to use the word ‘and’!" Otto shouts, when really he had intended to apologize for being such an ass.

Like Otto, Lulu in "Revenge of the Dinosaurs" rages against truisms, searching for more intimate forms of expression than the worn-out phrases everyone else takes comfort in. One day she is visiting her grandmother, a once indomitable intellectual, now barely recognizable in her advanced state of zomboid decay. Trite words of comfort—"Things take their course"—seem completely inadequate to Lulu. "Well, what does that mean, really—things take their course?" she rails. "If something exists, it exists, is what I think, but when Nana turned back to the TV she did actually look like just any sweet old lady, all shrunk into her little blanket." Here Eisenberg pegs one of those ungraspable moments that pass as quickly as a shiver, the split second in which Lulu perceives that each individual is an endangered species. When Nana dies, all of her experience and specificity will vaporize, "leaving nothing more than inscrutable little piles of commemorative trash."

Beautifully spare prose and unerring dialogue keep Twilight of the Superheroes aloft, but the despondency of the book’s title—with its suggestion of fading strength and vision—seeps into the stories. Eisenberg has turned her focus from girls interrupted to older characters ambushed by a sudden awareness of the passing of time. Even younger creations feel the chill of missed opportunities and unexamined choices: As Kristina, the postadolescent rambler in "Window" warns, "One little turn, then another, then another—and by the time you think to wonder where you are and how you got there, it’s dark." Her response is to keep moving, never choosing a single path, forever pursuing that transitive, Eisenbergian space-in-between.

Joy Press is the lead book and television critic at the Village Voice.