Twilight of the Superheroes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Deborah Eisenberg once said,Sometimes, when I write a story, what I want the story to do is to convey a very specific and usually very peculiar feeling. And the narrative is the conveyance. That is, in some cases, I’m not terribly interested in the narrative itself; I’ve simply chosen that particular narrative because of what I think it can do.

A serious student of fictionand, specifically, of the short story because this author writes short fiction exclusivelymight well question whether Eisenberg is formulating a distinction without a difference. After all, in “A Theory of Composition,” his landmark codification of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe declared that every word in a short story should work toward the dramatizing of one overriding theme. Is not Eisenberg’s aim to isolate a very specificand peculiarfeeling the equivalent of Poe’s call for the subordinating of everything to a single theme?

After a first reading of the six stories in Twilight of the Superheroes, one might be left with the impression that Eisenberg’s endings tend not to end much of anything at all. It is tempting to suggest that no reader who is dependent on what one reviewer disparages as “the typical expository armatures that prop up dramatic scenes: who is talking and to whom about what” will be able to manage double-takes flexible enough to negotiate these tales.

In “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” the shortest of the six stories, two adult siblings who live on opposite coasts generate little more than anger as they try to discuss what is to be done with their grandmother, a once-vigorous woman and author of a book on currency. Disabled by two strokes, she watches television all day in the company of a nurse. Eisenberg seems to skate on thin ice, lurching between so many seemingly despicable witnesses to so desperately familiar a tableau. Neither grandchild comes close to resolving anything. The horror of the story lies not in the unburied dead Nana but in the ire of the living, the “air of sinister disjunction that seems to spill into the room from the always muted TV.”

At an opposite (also, in a curious way, an apposite) pole to so misanthropic a story is “Some Other, Better Otto,” in which Otto, a sixtyish attorney who is stressed by the needs of his scattered siblings, receives more compassion and understanding than he yearns for or deserves from the violinist William, his endlessly kind, selfless lover. From him, Otto has learned that “every creature on earth, on all the earths, was straining to reunite as its own original entity, the spark of unique consciousness allocated to each being, only then to be irreconcilably refracted . . . by the prism of time. No wonder one tended to feel so fragile. It was infuriating enough just trying to have contact with a few others, let alone with all of one’s selves.” The story does not just end; it comes to a conclusion; and that resolution provides a comic set piece, both rarities in Eisenberg.

What is more de rigueur at family reunions than new babies? In “Some Other, Better Otto,” Otto...

(The entire section is 1273 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The Atlantic Monthly 297, no. 5 (June, 2006): 109.

Harper’s Magazine 312 (June, 2006): 87-92.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 21 (November 1, 2005): 1156.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 14 (September 21, 2006): 41-42.

The New York Times 155 (February 7, 2006): E1-E6.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (February 12, 2006): 10.

Newsweek 147, no. 8 (February 20, 2006): 66.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 48 (December 5, 2005): 29.