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Sunlight in the Dark

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 his dead wife, “He strains for traces of her voice, but her words degrade like the words in a dream, as if they’re being rubbed through a sieve.” Part of normality, Eisenberg seems to be saying, part of life, is looking at the future and at the past and seeing how oddly disconnected they seem: promise and promises broken.

In this story, even the city views hold out promise. Lucien has arranged for Nathaniel to house-sit for a client, a Japanese businessman who, when the financial bubble bursts, leaves behind his fabulous downtown apartment on the thirty-first floor. In addition to the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, “Nathaniel could make out the Statue of Liberty holding her torch aloft, as she had held it for each of his parents when they arrived as children from across the ocean—terrified, filthy, and hungry—to safety.” The view of the city, which holds out the promise of safety to Nathaniel’s immigrant parents, promises something else to him and his friends: glamour. “Towers and spires, glowing emerald, topaz, ruby, sapphire, soared below…. Sitting out on the terrace had been like looking down over the rim into a gigantic glass of champagne.” Nathaniel’s parents, Rose and Isaac,

were solid members of their temple and the community, but, according to Charlie, no matter how uneventful their lives in the United States continued to be, filling out an unfamiliar form would cause Isaac’s hands to sweat and send jets of acid through his innards. When he or Rose encountered someone in uniform—a train conductor, a meter maid, a crossing guard—their hearts would leap into their throats and they would think: passport!

In an echo of the irony of the unrealized millennial fears and the unexpected horror of the World Trade Center attacks, it is the fearful Rose and Isaac who are safe, and Charlie, Rose’s younger sister with the impeccable magical American birth certificate, who is dead. Eisenberg has so much going on in her stories, so many strands tangled in her dark, lacy fabric, that these parallels, which in lesser hands would feel schematic, do not even appear to be part of a pattern. Instead, they are striking for their richness and detail and depth.

This is Eisenberg’s glancing but unmistakable treatment of September 11: Nathaniel and his friends are having breakfast on Mr. Matsumoto’s terrace when one of them “spilled his coffee and said, ‘Oh shit,’ and something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.” Now, nearly three years after that day, they lounge on the terrace one last time. Mr. Matsumoto is coming back. New York, he has explained to Lucien is “back to normal.” In response to which Lucien thinks, “What’s that famous, revolting, sadistic experiment? Something like, you drop the frog into a pot of boiling water and it jumps out. But if you… slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog stays put and gets boiled.” And so the boiled frogs, Nathaniel and his friends, sit on the terrace with its drastically altered view one more time, one of them “lying there so still on the yoga mat with his eyes closed, he appears to be a tomb sculpture from an as yet nonexistent civilization.”

The future, Eisenberg reminds us, is here in the past, just as our future grew from someone else’s past. From an as yet nonexistent civilization, Eisenberg moves us back to the roots of our own civilization, to ancient Rome. “This one’s a photograph of a statue, an emperor, apparently, wearing his stone toga and his stone wreath,” Lucien remembers, picturing the illustration in a childhood history book:

The real people, the living people, mill about just beyond the picture’s confines, but Lucien knows more or less what they look like…. He knows what a viaduct is and that the ancient Romans went to plays and banquets and that they had a code of law from which his country’s own derived. Are the people hidden by the picture frightened? Do they hear the stones working themselves loose, the temples and houses and courts beginning to crumble?

Out the window, the sun is just a tiny, tiny bit higher today than it was at this exact instant yesterday. After school, he and Robbie Stern will go play soccer in the park. In another month it will be bright and warm.

In her clear, brisk, precise prose, Eisenberg created in the title story a textured tale of doom and the hope that lies within it. The story that follows, “Some Other, Better Otto,” is deceptively lighter. There is no horrifying catastrophe here, just an aging gay couple in a familiar and comfortable New York. It is a sharply observant yet sweet, almost gentle, treatment of a sad, irritable man who is, despite himself, full of love. Otto is a rich lawyer who lives in a brownstone with his boyfriend of thirty-odd years, William. After first taking William to meet his family, who gawk and condescend, Otto is sure William will leave him:

Back in the apartment, they sat for a while in the dark. Tears stung Otto’s eyes and nose. He would miss William terribly. “It was a mistake,” he said.

William gestured absently. “Well, we had to do it sooner or later.”

We? We did? It was as if snow had begun to fall in the apartment—a gentle, chiming, twinkling snow. And sitting there, looking at one another silently, it became apparent that what each was facing was his future.

The past, in this story, is Otto’s family, or so he likes to think:

When his mother died, Otto experienced an exhilarating melancholy; most of the painful encounters and obligations would now be a thing of the past. Life, with its humorous theatricality, had bestowed and revoked with one gesture, and there he abruptly was, in the position he felt he’d been born for: he was alone in the world.

When Otto’s sister Corinne insists that Otto and William join her for Thanksgiving and somehow talk their other, reclusive, schizophrenic sister, Sharon, into coming, too, Otto is horrified. “It had taken him—how long?—years and years to establish a viable, if not pristine, degree of estrangement from his family.” Yet he does visit Sharon, he does ask her to come to Thanksgiving. He and William sit in her apartment and the past is everywhere around them: “The light that made its way to the window around the encircling buildings was pale and tender, an elegy from a distant sun. Sharon herself sometimes seemed to Otto like an apparition from the past.”

When Sharon, presenting her guests with tea bags rather than loose tea, offers an unnecessarily complicated explanation, William is the kind of good-natured fellow who says merely, “Oh, goody,Darjeeling.” He also tries, like Sharon, to explain the theories of nonlinear time to Otto. “It’s plenty linear for us!” Otto replies. “Cradle to grave? Over the hill? It’s a one-way street, my dear. My hair is not sometimes there and sometimes not there….” Still Otto cannot help but imagine other paths, other possibilities:

If time was the multiplicity Sharon and William seemed to believe it was, maybe it contained multiple Sharons, perhaps some existing in happier conditions, before the tracks diverged, one set leading up to the stars, the other down to the hospital.

Eisenberg’s characters in the other stories are just as fascinated as Otto by the idea of the different paths that a life can take. For Eisenberg, this is an essential, elusive thread that holds the whole together. The construction of these stories, which feels so casual and chatty, is in fact thrillingly intricate. Eisenberg works in such flawless detail, with an almost musical appreciation of the humor and truth of dialogue, that reading these stories gives one the impression, sometimes, of sunlight glancing across a spider’s web, illuminating this corner, that strand, letting us understand, always, from these glimpses, that there is a whole, a world of connection. And then there is the simple pleasure of Eisenberg’s language. Otto’s sister Corinne treats her son’s wife “with a stricken, fluttery deference as if she were a suitcase full of weapons-grade plutonium.” Sharon’s furniture is “all slip-covered in a nubby, unexceptionable fabric that suggested nuns’ sleepwear….” Otto despairs over William, “Oh, it was like trying to pick a fight with a dog toy!” In this story there is a passage about chrysanthemums that builds and builds to a pure, Haiku simplicity; and the family dialogues, diffuse and pointed the way family conversations always are, are like portraits, they reveal so much.

My favorite story, “Like It or Not,” is an agonizingly lovely description of two lonely people who do not fall in love in Italy. All of the lush beauty of an Italian backdrop for love is there. Kate, an American biology teacher, “a grunting barbarian,” as she sees herself, is being shown around by the friend of a friend—a Jamesian “rarefied esthete”). She follows the hotel bellman

up a flowing staircase and along silent corridors. The bellman opened the massive wooden door to her room, and then the French doors onto her balcony. Lordy! No wonder no one else in the lobby looked much like a schoolteacher. Water gleams fleeted in, rocking the room gently; the high ceiling curved above her, and the stone floors floated underfoot.

Lordy! It is that exclamation that brings Kate into focus, that brings the glory of the Italian seashore, the soft-footed bellman, the lush hotel all into heartbreaking focus. Eisenberg is generous to her characters, twirling them happily in heady, unexpected beauty, but she is also coolly, incisively observant. In “Like It or Not,” the giddy Kate goes downstairs to meet Harry at the bar as arranged, and finds him chatting with a family. In one of the many fine, chilling, sadly droll group moments that she writes so well, Eisenberg traces Kate’s discomfort as carefully as if it were a flower in bloom:

The wife was glancing sidelong at Kate with slight alarm, as though Kate might be hoping to sell them pencils. Harry swiveled in his chair, looked at her blankly, then sprang to his feet. “My dear!” he said. “Ah, we’re a chair short! What shall, what shall, what shall we do, eh?”

For a moment everyone except the girl was standing and bobbing about and pushing one another toward seats. “Oh,” Kate began. “Well, I could just—“ Just what? But then a murmuring waiter in a white coat was there with a smile of compassion for her that pierced her like a bayonet.

Lordy! How we come to love Kate, to wish her happiness, to long for her happiness, and all this in a forty-page short story that takes place over two days. But Eisenberg’s short stories are whole, long lives, several lives, intersecting—or not. And Harry—an elusive, wandering antiques dealer, collector, obsessive worshiper of the beauty of long ago—Harry, just a symbol of European sophistication at the start of the story, is slowly, unexpectedly revealed in all his exquisite sadness. Kate longs for a future of love; Harry for love that existed in the past. When Kate asks him how he met Giovanna, their mutual friend, he says it was at a garden party:

I remember every detail of that glimpse—the exact posture, the smile, every button on the dress. She was scarcely thirteen. There were eight years between us.”

…Aren’t there still?”

He sat back and studied her, amusement and sorrow competing in his own smile. “Well, now it’s a different eight years.”

Time is mutable, time is immutable, and all at once. Like Kate, like all the characters in these stories, Harry can only wonder: “How did it happen, how did it happen? Oh, it’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that it’s the same person who has lived each bit of one’s life.”

When Kate was young and Giovanna, her glamorous Italian friend, was her roommate,

they scrutinized each other…as if each were looking into a transforming mirror, which reflected now certain qualities, now certain others. So many possibilities had floated in that mirror!

Then Giovanna moved back to Italy and Kate married Baker and had her two children, now grown. But even that path, seemingly so clear, was twisted and foggy, for Baker discovered he was gay and moved in with a man:

One assumed there was such a thing as chance; when one was young, one assumed that the way one’s life was to express itself was one of many possible ways, and later, one assumed that this had been true.

Kate tells herself this, tells herself that Giovanna’s life would never have been on her path, and yet she wonders what her life would have been if her path had diverged just one degree. Where would she have ended up?

She does not end up with Harry, despite the crisp linen and heavy shutters, the stars and the sea. Kate, fragrant from her luxurious bath, dressing to go downstairs to meet Harry for dinner, the tiniest bit hopeful, scornful of her own hope, considers wearing a sexy black dress. It is now or never, Kate thinks, about the dress, looking in the mirror, the mirror that once held out to her so many possibilities. “All right, then—never, the mirror said, coolly.” In this story of the difference between self-consciousness and self-awareness, about the distance we stand from ourselves and the distance our futures stand from our pasts, Eisenberg has created a small masterpiece.

The next story—a dreamy rescue from loneliness and meaninglessness that ends, sort of, with physical abuse—is lovely and disturbing. The last two, while full of wonderful writing—those superb family discussions!—are more like some of Eisenberg’s earlier, knowing, pointed stories. But the book stands not just as a collection of disparate stories. It is more—it is a whole: a thoughtful, impeccably intelligent and witty tale of maturity, and what maturity, sadly, happily, leaves behind. For the most part, the little whiffs of archness that sometimes blew across Eisenberg’s earlier work have disappeared, as have the heaving political messages that occasionally marched too loudly by. Even her treatment of the terrorist attacks of September 11, a subject far too raw for most writers to handle without self-important vulgarity, is done with such allusive reserve that the immensity of the tragedy is allowed to take its own true shape beyond the edges of the page. This book is without doubt Eisenberg’s best.

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