"IN Europe," Giovanna tells Kate, the 40-something woman who centers Deborah Eisenberg's short story, "Like It or Not," "you still have the chance to lose your lovers to someone your own age." It's not long, though, before Kate finds herself resisting the urge to console a bored and beautiful young girl who has just spent the night with Kate's dinner companion, Harry. Kate doesn't know about the tryst, but the circumstance marks her as a woman not only excluded from the world of carnal pleasures but resigned to the situation -- why care about a game you'll never win? One day, it will be the same for the girl. "Be patient," Kate imagines herself saying. "It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow, next week you won't even remember
That's how it is for the people in Eisenberg's new book of stories, "Twilight of the Superheroes." They meander with little purpose through their mystifying days, gazing toward sprawling futures full of nothing in particular, blinking like newborn mice as they watch their accidental comforts -- the swank apartment, the too-good wine, the little blue-painted, rent-free room -- evaporate as comforts always do. There is Kristina, the pretty young waitress in "Windows," who hopes to stretch the fragile thread of a day's contentment through the rest of her life, even after her new husband leaves under sinister circumstances. Or Lulu, of "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," whose boyfriend stays in bed researching depleted uranium long after his funding for such research is denied. In the collection's title story, 24-year-old Nathaniel, uncertain and disoriented in New York City even before he sees the World Trade Center towers explode from his undeservedly plush downtown balcony, invents an antihero that could serve as an avatar for all of them: Passivityman, the sleepy-headed, defeated star of a comic strip that, Nathaniel admits, "was doted on by whole dozens, the fact was, of stoned undergrads."
Superficially, these are not stories every writer would consider worth telling. Someone in them is always dying, dead or disappearing -- mentally or physically -- and no one seems to have the slightest conviction that loss is to be accepted and grief overcome. But Eisenberg, with her wide embrace of metaphor and keen sense of the eternal -- the endlessly renewing cycle of human puttering -- understands that behind every unexceptional face are notions and visions no one else has ever known. "It's incredible," says Lulu, watching her once-refined grandmother languish and drool after a stroke, "I can't ever quite wrap my head around it -- that each life is amazingly abundant, no matter what, and every moment of experience is so intense." As Otto, in "Some Other, Better Otto," recognizes, watching his boyfriend William marvel at an infant, every baby has wonder in its eyes.
Urbane Otto suspects that the wonder is only our genes fighting to replicate themselves. Yet in giving words to the intensity of which Lulu speaks, Eisenberg lets us believe it's something more. Kate, over dinner with her male companion, describes with slightly drunken enthusiasm what it's like to teach biology to high school students: "It brings you to your knees, really.... There we are, looking at pictures of what's going on every instant inside our very own bodies!" Kristina, meanwhile, optimistically likens the passing of time to "unwrapping the real day from other days made out of splendid, fragile, colored tissue." At the end of "Windows," you want to follow her off the page and linger in her finely detailed if bleak little universe, where, among the people she loves, Kristina wafts -- pained, inert and, ultimately, dear.
The author of six previous collections, Eisenberg has long been in the business of elevating regular folk to literary status. Her stories are so skillfully crafted that they seem composed more of shapes and textures than of printed words. In "Transactions in a Foreign Currency" (1986), she gives weight and depth to the everyday troubles of ordinary women; the title story of "Under the 82nd Airborne" (1992), meanwhile, revolves around an aging, unemployed actress in war-ravaged Central America among CIA operatives and disaffected ex-pats. Throughout her work, she assiduously avoids endowing anyone, even the tortured artists and gifted students, with the noble power to endure hardship. These people are fascinating for the simple reason that they are recognizably, credibly human -- at once like everyone else and utterly unique.
The stories in "Twilight of the Superheroes" aren't perfect. Eisenberg occasionally puts her characters into unbelievable circumstances, as when the unnamed female protagonist of "The Flaw in the Design" walks off a train platform and into a hotel room with a stranger, contrary to every other clue we have about who she is. She also likes to lace her narratives with politics, which seemed logical and real in "Under the 82nd Airborne" but at times here comes off as stilted. Still, even her less successful stories have enough specific, emotional language to settle eerily in the mind. Reading her makes you wish, as you study the family in front of you in the grocery line, that you could see their thoughts rendered as one of Eisenberg's stunning inner monologues.
That's a valuable gift from a fiction writer at this bewildering time in history, when the chasm between daily life and world events seems to widen every hour. "[H]ow far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?" wonders Nathaniel's aging gallery-owner uncle, Lucien, in the story "Twilight of the Superheroes," as he laments not having made the world a better place before he got old.
"Twilight of the Superheroes" is the only piece here that takes place in the direct aftermath of Sept. 11, while the buildings still smolder and the economy sags. Yet untethered fragments from the day surface throughout the book, as if impressions of the catastrophe had been scattered around the country like shards of glass and concrete from the towers. Kristina, holed up in a cabin with no telephone and only kerosene lanterns for light, dreams briefly of "showers of burning debris" as she lies in bed with her ephemeral husband; Lulu thinks of "great chunks of charred metal falling from the sky" every time she boards a plane. Then there are those familiar, flag-draped men on television, the fingerprinting at the airport and all the soldiers -- a humming, ominous backdrop of doom against which individuals must act.
But act how? Do what? Nathaniel is the youngest son of Midwestern Jews who fled Europe for America as children. In those "horrible old days," Eisenberg suggests, "it must have been pretty clear to them how to behave, minute by minute. Men in jackboots? Up in the attic!" Like Passivityman, though, Nathaniel and Lucien have no such clarity. "Maybe there really is no problem," thinks Lucien, "maybe everything really is back to normal and maybe the whole period will sink peacefully away, to be remembered only by scholars." Then he notices again "the president's vacant, stricken expression staring from ubiquitous television screens" and is reminded of a picture he saw in his high school history class, an illustration of a statue in ancient Rome. He imagines "the real people, the living people" milling about behind the statue, and thinks: "Do they hear the stones working themselves loose, the temples and houses and courts beginning to crumble?" The question that lingers is: Do we?
As the era of the superhero draws to a close, it's hard to decide whether Eisenberg has captured things the way they are or the way we perceive them to be. If the present remains unknowable until we examine it as history, the characters in "Twilight of the Superheroes" can only respond to the shifting chaos as they do to their own personal ordeals -- with patience. "Terrible, the body's yearning, terrible," thinks Kate, remembering the day her husband left her for a man named Norman. "But you could always outwait it." And like all the people here, she does.
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From Twilight of the Superheroes
AT the moment when all this -- as Lucien thinks of it -- began, the moment when a few ordinary-looking men carrying box cutters sped past the limits of international negotiation and the frontiers of technology, turning his miraculous city into a nightmare and hurling the future into a void, Lucien was having his croissant and coffee.
The television was saying something. Lucien wheeled around and stared at it, then turned to look out the window; downtown, black smoke was already beginning to pollute the perfect, silken September morning. On the screen, the ruptured, flaming colossus was shedding veils of tiny black specks.
All circuits were busy, of course; the phone might as well have been a toy.