Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes, is a tender, skeptical, inconsolable embrace of what cannot be changed. The six stories have an almost elegiac quality, if elegies were written for what comes next.
The title story begins with twenty-eight-year-old Nathaniel amusing himself with a monologue he imagines delivering someday to his grandchildren. He will tell these imaginary descendants how he came to New York City from the Midwest just at the turn of the millennium. This, he will explain, was when the city, indeed the world, was gripped by the Y2K fear of something that never happened, the moment when “we were suddenly aware of ourselves standing there, staring at the future blindfolded.”
As Nathaniel contentedly natters on to himself, we realize that in this one rather whimsical daydream, Eisenberg has managed to suggest not only a sense of the future, that there will actually be a future for Nathaniel, for the grandchildren the future will bring him, but she has also evoked the fears for the future that went unrealized, and then, finally, all at the same time, she has allowed us a clear glimpse, through implication, of the unexpected tragedy in New York City that came one year later, the tragedy that no one thought to fear.
One of the many pleasures and constant surprises of Eisenberg’s work is the sense that one is reading a simple sentence, a simple paragraph, a simple story, only to realize that one is reading, in fact, a simple story and everything that is happening beneath it, behind it, and hovering above it. Eisenberg writes in so many dimensions at once, all of them darting in and out from behind one another. The twilight of the title, a time of day that looks both ways, back to daytime, and ahead to night and the day that will follow night, is on one level what each of the stories is concerned with—time, age, youth, and fate. Yet each story is also as full of life and of lives lived as a novel.
While Nathaniel imagines the story he will tell in the future, his Uncle Lucien, a successful art dealer, daydreams about his wife, Charlie, who died a few years earlier of cancer. Lucien was surprised he went on living after her death, “But the body has its own appetite, apparently—that pitiless need to continue with its living, which has so many disguises and so many rationales.” Because Eisenberg acknowledges that appetite and welcomes it in all its “disguises” and “rationales,” these stories of loss and disappointment are strangely invigorating, even buoyant. “Twilight of the Superheroes,” in which New Yorkers escape the disaster of the millennium only to experience the tragedy of September 11, is a not a requiem for innocence—an obvious, easy, and not entirely true picture of the world of New York after the terror attacks. The story is, rather, a careful description of tragedy diffusing into normality. When Lucien envisions …