Saturday, May 12, 2007

Twilight of the Superheroes

Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheoes. Was in the Toronto Star in early 2006.

It’s been fashionable for years to complain about the “workshop effect” on the contemporary North American short story. The argument goes that the recent rise of creative writing programs has honed young writers’ technical proficiency while discouraging ambition and idiosyncrasy. So we get solidly and stolidly constructed stories from which anything that might raise the reader’s eyebrow or muddy the author’s intent has been removed. The characters and their dilemmas are outlined in bold, the appropriate backstory is expertly filled in, and the epiphany pulls sleekly into the station at the appointed hour.

The workshop effect (or at least its recent hegemony) has probably been overstated, but it’s still fair to say that when it comes to fiction about the way we live now, we could use a little more narrative weirdness mixed in with our real-world anxieties. And for that, the work of New York City writer Deborah Eisenberg is as good a source as any.

Take the title piece of Twilight of the Superheroes, Eisenberg’s new book. It’s about a group of twentysomethings housesitting in a Manhattan loft before and after the 9/11 attacks, about how young people struggle to make their way in the world and how that’s distorted by paranoia and grief. But it’s also about Lucien, the uncle of one of those twentysomethings, who’s lost in grief for his dead wife and lost also in terror, convinced that 9/11 portends an apocalypse.

What makes the story notable is that there’s no sense that any of these elements is a metaphor for any other one – all of them are simply there, bumping up against each other. By the story’s end, no understanding or resolution is reached, no comfort (warm or cold) offered.

Or take “Like It or Not,” another piece in the new book. It follows Kate, a schoolteacher visiting Italy who falls into a weekend trip to the countryside with an Italian man, a friend of a friend serving as impromptu tour guide. Most of the story tracks Kate’s shifting feelings and preoccupations: she’s exasperated with her guide, broods over her ex-husband’s illness, and picks at her own loneliness. Near the end, though, the point-of-view moves suddenly to the guide, and it’s the switch in perspective, not the actual events (what follows is hardly a surprise) that gives the story a disorienting twist.

Like Alice Munro, Eisenberg has stuck to short stories throughout her career – Twilight of the Superheroes is her fourth collection since her debut 20 years ago – and similar motifs and techniques tend to recur in her work. Her narrators are often befuddled by their own conceits about themselves, and often we catch them trying (without much success) to navigate a strange land – American innocents in Latin America is a favourite Eisenberg starting point. Her stories can slide into a mood of unsettling threat without warning, but they also have a Chekhovian spirit of capturing small details and tangential conversations as they come up, apparently without propelling the narrative forward.

When all of this works, it works beautifully – most notably in the terrifying title story of Eisenberg’s 1992 collection, Under the 82nd Airborne., in which a self-involved former actress visiting Honduras is menaced by a thuggish American mercenary. Or “Mermaids” (from 1997’s All Around Atlantis), in which a family trip to New York leads to overlapping agendas and individual agonies, all of them observed by a young girl who doesn’t fully understand them.

There’s nothing that strong or fully realized in Twilight of the Superheroes. Instead, the new book gives us moments here and there worth savouring: the raging contempt of an aging lawyer for his family in “Some Other, Better Otto,” or a teenage boy’s almost hallucinatory culture shock as he readjusts to urban privilege after years abroad in “The Flaw in the Design.”

Unfortunately, though, when several Eisenberg stories are read together in a collection, her limitations become more apparent, and the overall effect can be stultifying and muddled. Partly this is a question of voice. Twilight of the Superheroes features people young and old, male and female, rich and middle-class and poor, coldly practical and near-lunatic. But this doesn’t lead to the giddy multiplicity of styles that you might expect. Some characters are more given to exclamations, and some hold to a more flat affect, but for the most part the diction and pitch vary little throughout the book.

For example, early in one story, “Window” a 19-year-old woman flees a small town and a dead-end job, and her dissatisfaction is described thusly: “When she was little there had been moments like promises, disclosures – glimpses of radiant things to come that were so clear and sharp they seemed like erupting memories.” That’s some nice writing, sure. But the point is that Eisenberg’s prose always maintains a ruthless elegance, whether it’s actually appropriate to the situation and character or not.

Eisenberg also has little interest in quotidian detail: she’d rather ruminate on someone’s inner angst or secret fears than ground us in their daily life. Factor in the aloof prose as well, and many of her characters seem more like artist’s conceptions than real people. (Similarly, at times her Manhattan resembles some Woody Allen-style fantasyland that’s removed from the grit of the real world.) And while Eisenberg’s stories are spiky and unpredictable in structure, often the character dynamics behind the action can be summarized all too easily, stuck in some limbo that’s neither singular nor universal.

That’s quite the pile-on of complaints, I realize. In Eisenberg’s defence, in small doses her fiction is more powerful, and her weaknesses seem less like weaknesses. Twilight of the Superheroes isn’t her best work, but readers may still get caught up in her characters’ mental oscillations, and admire the elegance of her prose – especially if they take the book one story at a time, over time.

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