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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Stories tell us we are the superheroes

BY JENNIFER DAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

TWILIGHT OF THE SUPERHEROES. By Deborah Eisenberg. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 225 pages. $23.

Twilight of the Superheroes, Deborah Eisenberg s latest collection of short stories, is a sneaky thing. It s a quick read, downright breezy for a writer so literary, and the whole thing is wrapped in a red-and-blue book jacket decorated with comic-strip art.

Its cover is all thick outlines and bright colors yet you notice a big tear leaking from the bedraggled superhero s eye, a bug crawling on the wall, and folks gazing down from a balcony across the way at an explosion just out of view.

As in the book itself, all the pows, blams, and ka-booms lurk on the fringes.

Eisenberg is one of those writers better known by other writers than readers; the stories in this collection come from literary journals, not the New Yorker. Her sentences have the snap of a short-form master like Lorrie Moore, without the bitterness.

The book takes its title from its first story, which chronicles the zombie-like pace of life in post-9/11 Manhattan. Enough time has passed that all the traumatic events of the first few years of the 21st century have drifted together to form a bleak cloud fogging the collective psyche of New York. Panic over the Y2K bug, terror on Sept. 11, anthrax in the mail, multi-state blackouts, and corporate scandals culminating in financial collapse it suddenly seems personal.

No one lingered to joke and converse in the course of their errands, but instead hurried irritably along, like people with bad consciences, Eisenberg writes. And always in front of you now was the sight that had been hidden by the curtain, of all those irrepressibly, murderously angry people.

Eventually, the rubber bands of life begin to spring back. The financial markets stabilize. The grand problems of the world eventually morph into a quiet background hum as the pressing responsibilities of life reassert themselves.

Eisenberg s strength is her ability to wring so much emotional truth from 30-page stories about family relationships and how they become complicated by disease, mental illness, and bad judgment. Her writing is honest and at times brutal, particularly in situations where her families are alienated, tethered by circumstance rather than fidelity.

These are people who think life would be easier if they weren t related to each other.These are the stories about caretakers of mentally ill sisters and sons, of cancer-stricken ex-husbands, of aimless nephews, of stroked-out grandmothers. Eisenberg s people are exhausted and frustrated, incapable of helping yet unable to abandon their charges.

In the book s six stories, Eisenberg s characters feel like sketches at first, blurry around the edges, even off-putting. But her ability to develop them in the course of a few pages into full-fledged, devastatingly compelling human beings is masterful.

Twilight of the Superheroes gets at that essential and yet difficult difference between empathy and sympathy.

It s a memorable book, one keeps the mind turning well after the covers are closed.

Eisenberg shows us that we are living in the twilight of superheroes.

The Justice League isn t coming to the rescue and yet something so much more genuine may greet the dawn.



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