February 2006



Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg currently leads the trifecta of female short story writers composed of herself, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore. These three authors are the most lauded, the most commented on, and the bestsellers of a genre that rarely creates blockbuster hits. There are other strong female short story writers today whose books receive worthy acclaim, such as works by the Annes: Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, Anne Beattie, and people such as Jayne Anne Phillips or the logorific Joyce Carol Oates, but there is the general sense of short story writing belonging to the New Yorker and the trifecta.

Between them, Eisenberg, Munro, and Moore have won two Guggenheims, three O. Henry’s and Canada’s highest literary prize. Moore and Munro were both included in the John Updike-edited collection of Best Short Stories of the Century and Eisenberg has made the University of Virginia one of the top ranked schools in the country for fiction.

The reason all of these honors is noteworthy is because, while these three women are wonderful writers who create beautiful scenes that open up whole worlds, rarely do any of them write about female characters such as themselves: that is, women who are self-confident, commended for their work and hold impressive jobs. Instead, they write of older men and coquettishly clueless young girls, of women who don’t know what it means to be sexual, people like Louisa, who, in Munro’s “Carried Away,” make excuses to the men they go home with, suggesting that “the traces of blood on the sheets could be credited to her period.” Moore’s characters schluff along, dreaming of men who have disregarded them, of sisters who have money and pools, Munro’s characters drive around in old cars and write tempestuous letters to married men, and Eisenberg’s are always missing or hating someone or something, too caught up in their own lives to notice the furtive affairs occurring around them.

Few of the characters Eisenberg, Moore, and Munro write of seem particularly likeable; few of them seem to like one another. One cannot help but question, upon reading these stories, if all humans are truly so ugly, so selfish, so indifferent. And then there is the horror that perhaps they are, and that includes you. Still, it is slightly disconcerting that so many of the women they write about seem to lack fulfilling relationships entirely, to see love as resignation, to survive in such an unvarying state, rejecting and accepting familial relations.

Now Eisenberg has come out with a new collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes, only serves to perpetuate the nihilistic drive of her characters. Here, with the background of September 11, there is the sense that apocalypse is inevitable, if only to ground the characters, to make them realize that they are small. The titular story, however, yields too much to this presumption; it comes off as heavy-handed and the world-weary exhaustion of the characters serves to tire the reader as well.

Another story, “Window,” though, is electric in its power. When Eisenberg describes the interaction between the young Kristina and Liz, a friend of Kristina’s boyfriend, Eli, it is terrifying: “She saw Liz register the sunglasses, the masked bruises. She saw Liz politely covering her surprise. And then she saw the thing that she had hoped so fervently that she would not see: she saw that Liz was not very surprised at all.” It’s like the fallout of a bomb, and the reader realizes she also is surprised, but even she knew it was coming, remembering Liz’s comment about Eli’s “great, great hands.”

The story is stinging because although the characters are, in turns, naïve, provincial and violent, it is obvious why Kristina leaves town with Eli, what he offers to her. It is as though Eisenberg, by giving him the fatal flaw of being an abusive boyfriend, absolved herself of needing to find another reason to make him unlikable, and so it is toward him and Kristina and baby Noah that the reader is able to be the most sympathetic. It is a testament to Eisenberg’s skill that we understand why Kristina finds Eli so alluring despite his fists, and yet, why she must leave him just the same.

One can only hope that Eisenberg and Moore and Munro will give us more female characters who have moral and emotional dilemmas that make them as torn and complex as the rest of us.

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374299412
240 Pages