Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006

Books

“Twilight of the Superheroes”
By Deborah Eisenberg
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Reading this Thursday, Feb 23rd, at 7pm
Barnes & Noble at Astor Place
4 Astor Place btwn. Broadway & Lafayette

The days of our miserable lives

By Giles Harvey

Like Chekhov, Faulkner, and the author of the “Pentateuch,” Deborah Eisenberg possesses an uncanny gift for turning humankind’s exceptional talent for misery into brief, haunting, comic stories.

The desperate characters who populate “Twilight of the Superheroes,” on the other hand, are incapable of such a brilliant metamorphosis. From the recent college graduate who fritters away his youth in New York whilst writing a comic strip about a superhero called Passivityman to the wife of an ambassador who goes to bed with a complete stranger she meets in the subway, almost all of her characters are maddened by their inability to express the intricate unhappiness of their lives. In “Some Other, Better Otto,” for example, the admittedly trite but far from lethal observation that “Everyone is so alone,” precipitates the eponymous character’s agonizing breakdown.

The stories themselves are told gorgeously, and Eisenberg’s rendering of the physical world is impeccable. Here is the view from the top of a Manhattan apartment building: “The avenues and bridges slung a trembling net of light across the rivers, over the buildings. Everything was spangled and dancing…” Here is the bar of an elegant Italian hotel: “The tender glimmer from candles and lamps embraced the encampments of guests; bright little clusters of laughter bloomed here and there amid clinking glass and conversation.” Here is someone checking the time and realizing they are late: “I reach for my watch from the bedside table and consider the dial—its rectitude, its innocence—then I understand the position of the hands and that, yes, the rush-hour traffic will already have begun.” Its rectitude, its innocence: my appreciation of timepieces has been enhanced no end.

Sometimes it seems that Eisenberg forgets how good she can be, as in the haze and congestion of this sentence depicting the unraveling of poor Otto:

And perhaps every creature on earth, on all the earths, was straining at the obdurate membranes to reunite as its original entity, the spark of unique consciousness allocated to each being, only then to be irreconcilably refracted through world after world by the prism of time.

Irreconcilably refracted? A whole arsenal is deployed where (as Eisenberg herself shows elsewhere) a single, well-placed sniper would have done the job. Take, for instance, the exhilarating narrative economy of the following sentence, in which the divorced and rapidly ageing heroine contemplates, with searing pragmatism, her lack of excitement at the prospect of a trip along the Italian coast with a new male acquaintance: “And perhaps the fact that Kate was in no mood to do anything proved, in fact, that she should submit gracefully to whatever…opportunity came her way.” How potently does that venomous euphemism convey the longing and frustration she’s felt over the years. And we are only on the second page of the story.

Ultimately Eisenberg’s characters seem to suffer more from life’s monotony than its ruptures and upheavals. As Chekhov puts it, “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day to day living that destroys you.”

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