31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 12: “Twilight of the Superheroes” by Deborah Eisenberg

May 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Twilight of the Superheroes

The title story in Deborah Eisenberg’s 2006 collection is surpassingly sad. Being, at least in part, about the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in New York City, it could hardly be otherwise. But “Twilight of the Superheroes” is about much more than 9/11. It is most insistently about loss – of youth, of innocence, of life, of illusions. It is also a subversive and angry attack on the myth of American exceptionalism, the notion that the American empire is immune to the tides of history.

The story opens ironically, with one of its central characters, Nathaniel, projecting into the future and imagining telling his grandchildren the story of what happened at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000. The Y2K paranoia that gripped the world prior to the turn of the millennium famously failed to amount to anything and there was an almost palpable sense of anticlimax: “We held our breath … And there was nothing! It was a miracle. Over the face of the earth, from east to west and back again, nothing catastrophic happened at all.”

The catastrophe, of course, was not eradicated, but merely deferred. Nathaniel sublets an apartment overlooking Ground Zero, and on the morning of the terrorist attacks, he and his roommates were out on their balcony enjoying the view and the beautiful day. Three years later, they are entertaining Russell, a friend of one of the roommates, who comments approvingly on the view from their balcony.

Well, sure, who knows where Russell had been? Who knows where he would have been on that shining, calm, perfectly blue September morning when the rest of them were here having coffee on the terrace and looked up at the annoying racket of the low-flying plane? Why should they expect Russell – now, nearly three years later – to imagine that moment out on the terrace when Lyle spilled his coffee and said, “Oh, shit,” and something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.

Nathaniel’s parents, Rose and Isaac, are the children of old world Jews from Eastern Europe; they have absorbed the stories of the war and Stalin, and are thankful that Nathaniel’s brothers grew up to be “blindingly inconspicuous.” Nathaniel, by contrast, worries his parents because of his “bizarre” friends, his choice of profession (“architecture, an unreliable future”), and his penchant for drawing comic books.

Nathaniel authors a series of comics “doted on by whole dozens, the fact was, of stoned undergrads.” The comics star Passivityman, a hero whose “rallying cry, No way … once rang out over the land, demobilizing millions” but “has since been altered by Captain Corporation’s co-optophone into, Whatever.” (Eisenberg here displays a strong affinity for the pop cultural references and linguistic playfulness of Margaret Atwood.) Following the events of 9/11, Nathaniel drifts into lethargy and Passivityman loses his appeal. “I guess he’s sort of losing his superpowers,” Nathaniel shrugs.

Indeed, much of the thematic heft of Eisenberg’s story involves the way in which we as humans throw in the towel, capitulate to the forces of history or to the mere fact of getting old. “How did he get so old?” Nathaniel’s uncle Lucien thinks. “The usual stupid question. One had snickered all one’s life as the plaintive old geezers doddered about baffled, as if looking for a misplaced sock, tugging one’s sleeve, asking sheepishly: How did I get so old?” When Lucien considers his own lost youth, the thinks that it’s unlike a misplaced sock: “it isn’t anywhere; it had dissolved in the making of him.”

The distance between youth and age, between the old world and the new, between the innocence of September 10, 2001 and the horror of the days that followed: these polarities inform and give shape to “Twilight of the Superheroes.” It is significant that Eisenberg chooses twilight – the dimming of the day – as her point of reference. Her story is about the fading of vitality, the diminution of strength and resiliency, whether on a personal or a national level. “Well, superpowers are probably a feature of youth,” Nathaniel supposes. “Or maybe they belonged to a loftier period of history.”

Of course, even lofty periods in history come to an end. Eisenberg explicitly connects the American empire in the early 21st century to the Roman empire, which could not survive the ravages of time. Lucien recalls his teacher, Miss Mueller, directing her class’s attention to the history of Rome in the pages of a school textbook:

This one’s a photograph of a statue, an emperor, apparently, wearing his stone toga and his stone wreath. The real people, the living people, mill about just beyond the picture’s confines, but Lucien knows more or less what they look like – he ‘s seen illustrations of them, too. He knows what a viaduct is and that the ancient Romans went to plays and banquets and that they had a code of law from which his own country’s is derived. Are the people hidden by the picture frightened? Do they hear the stones working themselves loose, the temples and houses and courts beginning to crumble?

Everything passes, everything fades. What 9/11 did, Lucien supposes, was to pull back the curtain on the “dark world” that lay behind the facade of American wealth and prosperity, a world “of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.” The passage of time brought a return to a kind of normalcy, but there remains a residual unease. “Because you can’t help sort of knowing that what you’re seeing is only the curtain. And you can’t help guessing what might be going on behind it.” What is going on behind it, Eisenberg suggests, is the march of history, and the unceasing progress of time. Youth fades, as do superpowers and illusions of invincibility. The great melancholy of the human experience is to find ourselves in twilight, with the day fading and the darkness inevitably overtaking us.

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