Monday, July 18, 2011

Twilight of the Superheroes - Deborah Eisenberg

'Twilight of the Superheroes' is the Eisenberg's fourth collection (of 7 stories) of short stories. This is the latest collection that has been published so far. All the four collections are available in a single volume 'The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg'. Some pointers on her style before you start reading her works. The stories do not always have things tied up neatly at the end, there is no progression from point A to B to C. In several cases there are several strands shown to the reader, different snapshots from which the reader has to be construct the bigger picture himself. Even with the disparate threads the reader soon gets to feel a certain intimacy with the characters, like seeing your neighbour or the people opposite to your house through the window. You know at a basic level those people, but if asked to give details on them it would be mostly conjecture, right? Similarly when we finish her stories we would have got to know the characters as broad strokes, but much is left to our mulling over them and to our own imagination. In that sense, it is difficult to read her works in one sitting. I had to read her full set of stories, one set at a time and in some cases one story at a time. I am always surprised by how she is equally at ease in painting imageries/nuances in her descriptions as she is in constructing dialogues. In fact, I would say that she has one the best ears for dialogue, dialogues that are not pretentious, but more close to life, more real and not affected in any way. For instance the gaps between dialogues, the way in which her characters leave their statements half finished when they are unsure of how to proceed further. How many times have we stopped halfway what we were saying because we ourselves are not sure of it. In a subtle way her stories are political too more so in her earlier collections than in this one.

The best story of the collection would be 'Some Other, Better Otto'. In typical 
Eisenberg style the story shows us vignettes from the life of Otto a gay who has been living with his partner for the last 25-30 years and so there is no cogent story that can be mentioned. Otto is part of a large family with many brothers and sisters. It is also the peripheral story of one of his sisters Sharon, who has been a victim of her own intelligence and have been leading an almost reclusive life for a long time. Ironically, Otto's brother who has been married thrice (an still counting) seems to be looked up as more or less conforming to normal societal standards than Otto who has been monogamous with his partner his whole life or Sharon whose only fault (if it could be called that) is her own overburdening intelligence. Just shows that it is dangerous to be in the periphery and not go with the flow of the majority. Never mind that you are not doing anything wrong, you would be ostracized and in some cases like Otto's family condescendingly patronized. The story also shows a glimpse of Otto's everyday life with William with the normal squabbles you would expect in a heterosexual relationship making one wonder what the fuss is about a gay relationship. Other than the gender and the attendant social problems a couple faces in such a relationship, most other things could be applied to a heterosexual couple too. This is one of her best works and I am sure will go into any collection of Eisenberg's best works.

The title story 'Twilight of the Superheroes' tells about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the impact it has on the characters in the story and on New York in general. Nathaniel ironically came to New York on the eve of the millinieum as he wanted to see what would happened because of the catastrophe forecast by the Y2K (God that period seems so long ago) and finding that nothing happened had settled into a routine life in a plush apartment (courtesy his uncle) with his friends, near the twin towers ("with the best view in the world"). All their lives have been affected by the events of that day and he is unable to fathom why such a thing should happen. Delphine, his acquaintance from Armenia gives counter point to this when she says during a conversation "... Do you know what they're saying about you over there", which provides an indication of how much a lot of Americans (mostly apolitical) were cut off from the outside world, what their country was doing in other countries, how they were being regarded by others. Most of them would have been living the American dream as it were or busy in trying to achieve it (As in the case of Nathaniel parents itself who immigrated to America in the 50's and never fully settled there though they made their life. Nathaniel himself would not have had an inkling about his country was being regarded elsewhere). The story's title is an explicit metaphor of the crumbling of the old ideas, the decline America as a superhero (considering the events that have happened in the years following 911 and are still happening it seems a bit premature to see the attack as the Twilight of the American superhero, maybe as Churchil said it could be looked at as the end of the beginning albeit in a different context).

'The Flaw In the Design' offers an oddly disturbing potrait of domestic life during the course of an evening. The story mostly moves through a dinner conversation the unnamed protagonist has with her husband and teenaged son after arriving from work. Her son seems to be suffering from a guilt complex about having more affluence,comforts than many others but is unable to give them up. Typical teenage angst you could say. A picture of normal domestic household (with it's attendant problems) is given, but the thing is the woman has returned after having a one-day stand with a stranger that day. The way she compartmentalizes that with her every day life is striking, makes one wonder why she did that, was that the first she did so. Beneath the mundane of daily life lurks something more sinister validating the title of the story.

'Window' is about  Kristina in her early twenties and her relationship with a slightly older man Eli who has a kid. There are 2 strands in the story, one is the relationship between Eli who come across as a control freak and Kristina and the one between Kristina and Eli's kid. The story ends with us thinking once again about the unfathamoble ways the human mind operates and the futility in trying to decipher it's actions.

'Like it Or Not' and 'Revenge Of the Dinosaurs' are probably the weaker stories in the collection. I was particularly bit disappointed with the later which involves Lucille who goes to her invalid grandmother and her brother Bill. There are no multiple strokes of characterization that Eisenberg generally employs. The picture we get of Bill and his wife is of a gold digger. We never see him as a three dimensional entity as in most of her works. Well, a collection with 1 excellent story, 3-4 really goods ones and probably 1 middlingly disappointing one is not a bad one is it?. Eisenberg is a writer not be missed. 

P.S: While on the subject to 9/11 literature here's a short story by Don  on it.

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