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."
"A different narrator."
"Yes, yes. A different narrator with a different brain."
"Your characters each seem to have been etched with a tiny pen. They're so precise. The settings, as well, are precise. The reader doesn't get lost, doesn't find herself asking, 'Am I in the living room in Vermont or New York?' Settings of stories are so important."
"They are very important to me."
"I like the complexity of your settings. You create many corners and nooks from which the reader can watch the action. Have you been in the places about which you write?"
"I make up some, but for most, I have been there. I think the settings are usually right out of the real world, nothing else. Real places might be where I start with a lot of things. Just the look of a place. One of the things that I loved about reading when I was young was the feeling of being transported to a place."
"If you were teaching, how would you explain to your Virginia students why a short story isn't a novel, how the two are different?"
"It's of course impossible to articulate, or at least it is for me, because I really don't have any conceptions about what a story is. But it is a very fine tool as opposed to a novel, I think. A story you can and are almost obliged to layer up. So that it's like tall food. I think of a story as a heaped-up novel in a way, or like a very, very deep tiny pool with different layers of this and that, and this and that."
"Or a flaky pastry."
"Yes, like a Napoleon."
"With all those flaky layers."
"Yes, so that each moment is informed by the information that you would receive laterally in a novel. There can be a kind of harmonic that you can get sometimes."
"It's like a poem in that way, a little engine of tightly constructed words."
We talked about our fondness for editing and cutting our work. I asked, "What do you cut first?"
"I don't have a system. I look for anything that isn't necessary because sometimes, if you take something that doesn't need to be said, you can get a lot of reverberation and actually it can show you what you're doing."
"What did you read when you were little that you loved?"
"I had some interesting reading experiences when I was little, or fairly little. I read a lot of Pogo; that was one of the things I taught myself to read on. And you know, Lord knows how children understand anything. So they might as well read difficult things as easy things. It doesn't bother children not to understand things because they don't understand things. I think that if you sequester supposedly difficult books from children, or sequester children from supposedly difficult books, they get very tense about reading in a way that they don't if they just read indiscriminately.
"I love going to Shakespeare in the Park because there are so many children there, and they all get the jokes. I'm frequently far behind. They understand it just as well as adults do somehow.
"I was just telling my class about this, because I had them read a couple of Katherine Mansfield stories. They are the two Mansfield stories that I read over and over and over when I was little because I lived in this very boring suburb, so I loved to read. And there was this book on my parents' shelf. It was an old Knopf edition, I think 1932, and the print was real large and there were these very deco line drawings, and so as far as I knew, this collection of Mansfield stories was a children's book. So I read "Daughters of the Late Colonel" and "Prelude" over and over and over. I had no idea what they were, but I was fascinated by them. That was a big chunk of my reading experiences when I was little."
I said how much I admired the story in this new collection, "Some Other, Better Otto." I added, about the story that it "kept reminding you that you were not the center of the universe."
Ms. Eisenberg agreed. "Yes, good, that's so much what I wanted from it. It's very gratifying to me that you say that because one of my friends complained that it was just about somebody being a horrible person who was completely disagreeable and why would anybody want to read that?"
"I felt that William and Otto, the principal characters, were people who were trying so terribly hard to be better. I found that you quickly put me in their shoes and made me want to be a better person. The story, in its own way, teaches civility."
"Yes, it does. Absolutely."
"The story works in the same way as theater can -- it allows you to imagine that there is indeed someone else other than your own greedy pig self alive in the world."
"Exactly. You've put the argument for fiction extremely well. I think there are a lot of moral arguments for fiction but they're all related to that. Fiction is one the most effective ways to explore areas of mind that are extremely subtle and the areas of human experience that can't be gotten to any other way. So I do think it's kind of a disaster that our culture so undervalues literature."
"And then," I sighed, "if you look at what's on the best seller lists. Much of the 'literature' there is cliché-ridden trash."
Ms. Eisenberg said, "Real fiction is contravalent to cliché. Cliché simply allows you to go to sleep."
"Yes, and since at this particular moment we have such a catastrophe with the acceptance of 'status quo,' anything that militates against that is useful as well as fascinating."
"I believe," I said, "that we are in the midst of a catastrophe of language. I believe we have begun, easily, to believe lies, and to snooze comfortably beneath cliché."
"Absolutely. Let's start with the 'War on Terror.' This is a country that has a problem, or an administration, let's put it that way, that has a problem with metaphor. We cannot use a metaphor. A former student of mine told me a joke that his father made that I think is really hilarious, that Bush is going to revive the Civil Air Patrol to deal with Avian flu. It's a great joke because it exposes the bogus use of metaphor. You don't drop bombs on an abstraction.
"And freedom? Oh, my God, what that has come to mean? Pure repression."
"Your stories, unlike many contemporary short stories, offer strong 'morals.' Your stories often are mini-gospels, or 'teaching stores.' And they are speaking to the back bench where Salinger's Fat Lady sits."
"I'm just so angry. I'm so angry. And, of course, my objective is to make very beautiful, strange things that are unique and surprising. But the world that is given to us to deal with now, fictionally as well as actually, is not beautiful.
"I do think that one of the roles that fiction plays in our lives, is to reveal other possibilities."
"We all have secrets?"
"In fiction, you find out that everyone has secrets."
"Well, of course," said Ms. Eisenberg, "it's a paradox that fiction is this thing that has to be made up, because fiction is the place that you go to for truth."