I’ve always thought short stories were just something novelists did to pass the time. They express a creative urge, certainly, but nothing epic — if the writer just eats a cookie, I imagine the urge will subside. To put it simply, when reading “The New Yorker,” I skim the short stories and scavenge for the cartoons.
It took Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection, “The Twilight of the Superheroes,” to set me right. In this slim volume, the sly Eisenberg, who limits herself to short stories, does her genre ample justice.
If this is uncanny, it’s because in Eisenberg’s warped world, the rules of story writing subside: the tales never end with sudden, shocking epiphanies nor do they begin with muscular, minimalist descriptions. Most importantly, every word does not slouch, burdened by the form’s emphasis on economy and its absurd requirement that every syllable emphatically mean something.
Instead, Eisenberg’s stories are, above all, playful. The sentences–often punctuated with exclamation points–are happy to just be on the page. The characters– capable of casually expressing buried, neurotic insights–endlessly surprise readers and each other.
At the same time, Eisenberg does all this with diction that feels neither cloying nor cute. Unlike so many funny writers, unlike almost any young, male writer, Eisenberg derives little impact from gimmicks. This is not to say Eisenberg is unafraid to experiment. In the book’s six stories, Eisenberg’s vast range of voices and styles are on full display. Still, reading Eisenberg, one senses that the world is a strange enough place on its own. This is a planet populated by sufficiently unpredictable, unusual people.
In “The Twilight of the Superheroes,” however, the biggest surprise is often how little things change. In the title story, a group of young friends sublet a luxurious loft in downtown Manhattan. They eagerly anticipate the millennium:
“All over the city there was an atmosphere of feverish anticipation. The year two thousand! The new millennium! Some people though it was the sure to be the end of the world. Others thought we were at the threshold of something completely new and better.”
Yet, as December passes into January, the calendars and the weather are all that change. After “the famous, strangely blank New Year’s Eve, the nothing at all that happened, neither the apocalypse nor the failure of the planet’s computers, nor, evidently, the dawning of a better age,” Nathaniel, the story’s adrift hero, “awoke with only a mild hangover and an uneasy impression of something left undone.”
Soon, it is September 2001 and their loft ‘s location acquires new significance. “When they’d moved in, it probably was the best view on the planet. Then, one morning, out of a clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst.”
This muted, ironic tone runs through the entire story. Like Y2K, 9/11 — “when something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.”–passes. This works because the story is not about a specific date. Instead, it describes time’s gradual gain of momentum, the way one’s youth momentarily twinkles and then passes.
Ultimately, an uncanny, saintly empathy drives Eisenberg’s writing. Her narrators are ultra-omniscient. Rather than describe the actions that define our days, they relay the strange thoughts that puddle inside our skulls. Eisenberg intimately accesses characters whether they are young or old, male or female, gay or straight.
In the second story, “Some Other, Better Otto,” she writes from a miserly, middle-aged gay man’s point of view. As it ends, he stares at the baby girl his lesbian neighbors have just adopted.
Ottos tries “to intercept the baby’s glossy, blurry stare. The baby was actually attractive, for a baby, and not bald at all, as it happened. Hello, Otto, thought to it, let’s you and I communicate in some manner far superior to the verbal one.”
This is a moving, nearly sentimental moment. Unsurprisingly, it falls apart quickly. “The baby ignored Otto,” Eisenberg explains. It’s a fair response. Ignoring people is, after all, what babies do. This one prefers to stare at “the blanket, the table legs, the shod sets of feet.”
On their own, these deflated epiphanies verge on magical. When read consecutively, the stories’ endings accrue significance. Unfortunately, they also lose some of their potency, their capacity to surprise and enchant readers. This is, of course, the problem with so many short stories– the ending, no matter how unusual, always feels imminent.
In “The Twilight of the Superheroes,” Eisenberg’s writing casts a revelatory, but temporary light: it streaks across this wonderfully sad world and inevitably it leads readers to each story’s final, exclamatory sentence.