Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories by Deborah Eisenberg. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006; $23; 240 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Deborah Eisenberg is nearly unmatched in her mastery of the short-story form. Now, in her newest collection, she demonstrates once again her virtuosic abilities in precisely distilled, perfectly shaped studies of human connection and disconnection. From a group of friends whose luck in acquiring a luxurious Manhattan sublet turns to disaster as their balcony becomes a front-row seat to the catastrophe of 9/11; to the Roman holiday of a schoolteacher running away from the news of her ex-husband's life-threatening illness, and her unlikely guide, a titled art scout in desperate revolt against his circumstances and aging; to the too painful love of a brother for his schizophrenic sister, whose tragic life embitters him to the very idea of family, Eisenberg evokes "intense, abundant human lives" in which "everything that happens is out there waiting for you to come to it."
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Kirkus Reviews: Eisenberg is the closest thing there is to an American Alice Munro. And this is one fine source for Woody Allen to mine for his next New York movie.
From Publishers Weekly: The author is at the top of her form delving into the varied but devastating truth that, even after an apocalypse, people still have to lie in the beds they've made, unable to sleep. A terrific addition to the oeuvre of one of America's finest and most deeply empathetic short story writers.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Born in 1945 in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Deborah Eisenberg grew up in what she described to one interviewer as an "hermetically sealed" middle-class household. She attended a boarding high school in Vermont and moved to New York in 1966, where she attended the New School for Social Research and in 1969 received her B.A. Ms. Eisenberg is the author of six previous collections of stories. The recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, she lives in New York City and teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at the University of Virginia. The title story of Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories first appeared in Final Edition, a one-time "little" magazine published by Seven Stories Press and edited by Ms. Eisenberg's long-time companion, film star and dramatist Wallace Shawn. Final Edition also contains Mr. Shawn's interview with Noam Chomsky; "The Webern Variations," a poem by Mark Strand; and "Invitation to a Degraded World" by Jonathan Schell.
On the afternoon that we spoke, Ms. Eisenberg was at her desk in Virginia, and I was at home in California. We talked about her childhood and her first years away from home.
"I think I spent a lot of energy during the time I was growing up just trying to keep myself relatively intact. I was not a happy child. I found it very hard to understand things. I was just trying to get through and that's where my energy went.
"When I went to The New School, we had a choice of studying either humanities or the social sciences. And I didn't know what the social sciences were, but I assumed that the humanities meant reading a book, and I thought, 'Well, I already know how to do that,' so I signed myself up for the social sciences and was completely lost, but it was incredibly fortunate. I got an actual education. It was a miracle that I got one because I wasn't about to let myself. I was very, very, very fortunate."
"Your stories tend to have large casts. They are not the usual short story with two or three characters, at least one of whom, by the story's end, 'sees the light.'"
Ms. Eisenberg agreed that she tended toward a large cast. "There's a story that appeared in a volume a couple of years ago, and it's basically a dinner party with eight people in it. There are a few peripheral characters who come in. I suddenly realized when I got out into the story that I was doing something that I didn't think I was going to be able to do, and I was very aware of dealing with all of those people. But normally, no, they just sort of come in and out easily whenever they do.
"I'm a very, very slow reader. I read the work of my students, but I read much less contemporary writing than I would like to simply because I'm so slow. So I really don't know what's out there and what it is in general that people are doing. I have been reading David Rabe's new stories, which I think are stunning. The collection is called A Primitive Heart. And there's a story in it called 'Holy Man' that is so phenomenal, but I think they're probably not like much else that's being done. I'm such a slow reader and therefore read so much less than I really ought to, I don't think I have much of a model in my head for the way I ought to be doing things."
"I said to someone, about your stories, that each story should be titled 'Danger, Handle With Care.'"
"Excellent. Well, I really do feel that each time I write a story it's as if I've never written one before and I have no idea how to do it. That may be true for absolutely every writer, and maybe everybody that you talk to says the same thing. But it's such a strange experience. Many people write novels and stories, and I have thus far at least have just written stories, but the energy it takes is phenomenal. You have to invent a world each time, and I somehow seem to have to invent a whole way of addressing the world.
"I know that there are many, many writers who derive a great deal of satisfaction and interest from staying in the same sort of emotional or even physical territory. I seem to be easily distracted and want to turn to different areas of the world, to different areas of my interior and to different concerns, and still each story seems to call for me to be a different person each time."