New York State of Mind

In praise of Deborah Eisenberg’s nonchalant sophistication

Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Unlike the book-every-other-year writers whose minds we seem to know in each elaborate fold and crease, and to whom we can almost feel we have a subscription, there are those—like Deborah Eisenberg, whose short stories used to appear from time to time in The New Yorker—who publish only rarely and whose books we wait for. Eisenberg’s fourth book of new work, Twilight of the Superheroes, seems to have been the longest in the making (nine years have passed since the publication of All Around Atlantis). The six stories here feel especially new, perhaps because they didn’t appear in large-circulation magazines (what’s up over there at The New Yorker?). They are her most ambitious and beautiful works to date. Can it be true that with talent, effort, the ability to keep at it, and a quite short haircut one eventually becomes great? It has worked for Deborah Eisenberg.

Eisenberg isn’t always the most accessible writer. Her stories are often less than linear in structure, and she’s said she has no idea what the word “epiphany” means (“There’s something about the idea of it that I simply reject”). And she has a knack for the ungracious character—the one who gets kicked under the table, argued with, and often sighed over. She’s able to present such people in all their irascibility and mess, and then somehow—like those psychologists who prove that pessimists have a more accurate view of reality than their optimistic and normal counterparts—by the end, reveal the cranks’ greater humanity and even make the “better” characters seem cardboard in comparison.

Whereas Alice Munro can, by rubbing together words in a sentence, bring to life rural schoolteachers and librarians as they lived in the last century, Deborah Eisenberg is consummately urban, as nonchalantly and inadvertently sophisticated as Proust. And as the last best hope for people who couldn’t manage—much less flourish—anywhere else, New York City glows in these stories. Although romantic (the Statue of Liberty is actually invoked earnestly, by one of the young characters), Eisenberg’s New York is resolutely not Henry James’s or George Plimpton’s city. It is a haven for the deracinated, who grew up elsewhere and found their way there, to make an imitation of home. The city’s glamour has always figured as a palpable presence in Eisenberg’s stories. This from her first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency:

At the sight of the cloakroom, with its rows of expensive, empty coats that called up a world in which generous, broad-shouldered men, and women in marvelous dresses (much like the one I myself happened to be wearing), inclined toward each other on banquettes, I was pierced by a feeling so keen and unalloyed it might have been called—I don’t know what it might have been called. It felt like—well, grief … actually.

Of course, this new collection, published in 2006, must in some way gesture toward 9/11. The title story offers the most delicate, tangential, accurate, and mysterious treatment of the event that I’ve read so far.

Eisenberg’s stories include glimpses of some of the precious few happy marriages in contemporary fiction, though the couple in the title story is seen happily only in recollection—the husband is now grieving for the loss of his wife. We see her nephew remembering his first impression of them.

Nathaniel was eight or nine when his aunt and uncle had come out to the Midwest to visit the family, lustrous and clever and comfortable and humorous and affectionate with one another, in their soft, stylish clothing. They’d brought books with them to read. When they talked to each other—and they habitually did—not only did they take turns, but also, what one said followed on what the other said. What world could they have come from?

That world, of course, was New York City.