Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Twilight of the Superheroes | Context


September 11

Most of the stories in Twilight of the Superheroes take place in the shadow of September 11, 2001. The date itself is never explicitly mentioned, but the events of it are referenced by characters who live in New York City ("Twilight of the Superheroes," "Revenge of the Dinosaurs") and Washington, D.C. ("The Flaw in the Design").

On September 11, 2001, 19 men associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two were crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center in the heart of New York City. An estimated 2,750 people died, including the airplanes' passengers, people working in the upper levels of the 110-story World Trade Center buildings, and 400 police officers and firefighters responding to the crash. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the United States' military headquarters in Virginia, killing 184 people. The fourth plane, which was originally headed toward the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., crashed into a Pennsylvania field at 580 miles per hour after the crew and passengers fought back against the hijackers. All 44 people aboard died.

The September 11 attacks (also commonly referred to as the 9/11 attacks) were the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the history of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people in New York City witnessed the attacks in person, while millions more around the world watched on television as the second airplane careened into the second World Trade Center tower. Video of the New York attacks and the horrific aftermath—bodies tumbling from the upper levels of the buildings, burned and bloodied survivors stumbling onto the streets, and the eventual devastating collapse of both buildings—played for weeks as an emotional and fearful nation tried to come to grips with what happened. Less than a month after the attacks, United States troops invaded Afghanistan to topple its Taliban government, which was providing refuge for al-Qaeda operatives. A U.S. invasion of Iraq followed in March 2003. Though there was no evidence Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had been involved with al-Qaeda's 2001 terrorist plot, U.S. officials stated they suspected the country was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The United States was thus engaged in its first full-blown war since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

The events of September 11, 2001, had a lasting impact on United States foreign policy and national security. It also greatly affected citizens' sense of safety and comfort in their home country. This is reflected throughout Twilight of the Superheroes as author Deborah Eisenberg's characters struggle to deal with the emotional and psychological effects of a culture in turmoil.

Modern and Postmodern Literature

It is difficult to assign Deborah Eisenberg's work to one particular literary movement. Her work has both modern and postmodern qualities. Because of the era in which she writes, scholars often categorize her with other postmodernists, but arguments can be made for her inclusion as a modernist as well.

The modernist period in literature began in the early 1900s and lasted generally until about 1965. During this period authors experimented with nonlinear narratives, stream-of-conscious narration, and irony (verbal, situational, and dramatic). Characters often feel alienated, or isolated, and their identities are fractured into several disparate parts. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by American writer Ken Kesey is a good example of a modernist novel. Its narrator and protagonist, Bromden, feels separate from the rest of society. His story is told out of chronological order, and he often lapses into stream-of-consciousness narration, especially when talking about painful memories. Modernist literature generally focuses on the inner self of the main character, and it often brings up questions about individual existence and the overall decline of civilization.

Postmodernism pushes the characteristics of modernist literature even further. Postmodernist authors are known for treating serious subjects in a playful manner, often through the use of dark humor. Narrators are unreliable, or untrustworthy, and there's often a sense of paranoia throughout the text. Postmodernists sometimes cross the invisible line between author and audience, either by referencing other published works, adopting the style of a famous work, or acknowledging the fact the book is a book. Postmodern fiction is also known for its use of magical realism, its technological focus, and its distorted narratives. Reality is not the focus of the postmodernist. A good example of postmodern literature is American writer Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996). The story bounces between an unreliable first-person narrator and a second-person narrator. It addresses serious topics, including masculinity and the rise of capitalism and consumerism, through the use of dark humor. The major difference between this and a modernist work like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is modernists generally try to make sense out of the chaotic world. They look for some sort of resolution to life's problems. Postmodernists do the opposite by acknowledging chaos cannot be overcome.

Postmodernism got its start right after the end of World War II (1939–45) and has yet to come to a definitive conclusion (though future historians may date it to sometime in the early 21st century). That's one of the reasons why Eisenberg is often called a postmodernist. But modernism and postmodernism can't be strictly defined by the year in which a work was written. Many literary scholars consider Don Quixote (1605, 1615) to be a very early example of postmodernism. So where does Eisenberg fit? Her work certainly has a lot of modernist qualities—it is introspective and at times situationally ironic (which means there's a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens). Her main characters definitely suffer from feelings of loneliness and alienation, even when they're surrounded by loved ones. She also utilizes stream-of-conscious narration, particularly with the first-person narrators of "Revenge of the Dinosaurs" and "The Flaw in the Design."

Eisenberg often pushes these traits of modernism into postmodern territory. Some of her narratives, particularly "Twilight of the Superheroes," are thoroughly fragmented, going back and forth between points of view and points in time. Time is also central in her work—her characters ponder the various time lines of their own lives and how their different selves may have had different outcomes, most notably in "Some Other, Better Otto" and "Like It or Not." Every story in Twilight of the Superheroes spans years for the reader while the characters themselves experience just the passing of minutes. But the most important factor for her inclusion in the postmodern canon is her reluctance to come to a definitive conclusion about the problems her characters face at home and in the larger world. Though she examines the chaos of human life, she does not try to make sense of it. That is what separates her from her modernist peers.

The Short Story

Deborah Eisenberg is primarily a short story writer. She has one play to her name (Pastorale, 1982) as well as a host of book reviews, but she has shown little outward interest in producing novel-length works. That's in part because of the nature of short stories themselves. In a 2015 interview with the Washington Independent Review of Books, Eisenberg said she prefers the short story because of its "mystery and elegance," which allows opportunities for "poetic composition, allusion, and rich layering" that aren't found in most novels. There isn't a huge market for writers looking to earn a living solely through short stories—only a handful of magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic publish short stories on a regular basis. That doesn't bother Eisenberg too much—she has said she is far more interested in writing than in being published. For short story writers who want to be published, especially those who are unknown, literary journals are often the solution. These niche publications don't pay much—some don't pay their authors anything at all—but they are a way of getting one's work in front of the public.

It wasn't always this way. Short stories have been around for centuries under the guises of myths, legends, anecdotes, and fairy tales. The term short story was introduced in the 19th century to describe any work of fictional prose that was shorter than novel length. Short stories of that era were subdivided into two groups, sketches and tales. Tales are meant to pass information within a culture, much like how an older generation conveys information to a younger generation. Tales are full of hyperbole, or exaggeration, and they can sometimes be difficult for people outside of the writer's culture to understand. American writer Edgar Allan Poe, author of "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Gold Bug" (1843), was known for his fantastical and horrifying tales. American writer William Faulkner's 20th-century short stories, which are deeply rooted in Southern culture and history, are also tales.

On the opposite end of the short story spectrum is the sketch. Sketches are more descriptive and analytical than tales, and they are usually rooted in reality. Sketches are meant to be intercultural, which means they depict a particular part of one culture so someone from another culture can understand it. American writer Washington Irving, who is best known for his tales "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1819) and "Rip Van Winkle" (1818), was also a prolific writer of sketches. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819–20), in which "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" were published, was also filled with stories that brought English customs and settings to American readers. And though he often borrowed aspects of tale writing, such as symbolism, American writer Ernest Hemingway is generally considered to be a modern version of the sketch writer.

Writing short stories was a good way for novelists to earn income while writing a book in the 19th century. Newspapers historically published serial stories, such as those of English writer Charles Dickens, one chapter at a time before the author published them in book format. Advertisers liked this because readers came back every month to read the next installment of favorite authors' stories. While that worked in Great Britain and other European nations, the model didn't fare as well in the United States. American urbanization in the 19th century meant people were moving all the time to find better job opportunities. Nobody lived in one place long enough to get hooked on a serial novel in the newspaper. Short stories were a different matter. They could be finished in one installment, which pleased advertisers, who were willing to pay more for placements in high-traffic areas of the newspaper.

These early, mass-published short stories were considered by some, including Poe, to be low-brow entertainment. He led the movement to elevate the short story to a form of art by experimenting with different structures and styles. This led to impressionistic short stories, which focus more on how an event affects a character rather than on the event itself. Similarly, Eisenberg's short stories are all about how characters react to events and the world around them. Such a focus can cause readers to proclaim, "Nothing happened!" upon first reading a story. But close reading shows that's not the case. The action of the story is within the characters themselves, not in what happens to them.

Short stories fell out of favor with the advent of movies and television. People could suddenly get their fill of short narratives without ever turning a page, and with the added bonus of audio and visuals. This pushed the short story even deeper into impressionistic and experimental territory as writers tried to capture what couldn't be shown on a screen. This change was similar to how painting changed after the introduction of the camera. Realistic paintings were no longer needed to capture everyday life, so artists were free to experiment with color, meaning, and form. The same thing happened to the short story. Since the mid-20th century short stories have become more literary and artistic in nature, allowing writers to experiment with structure, voice, and perspective as they shine a light on the psychological conflicts of daily life. For Eisenberg this means (as she puts it), "trying to make something out of words that you'd think couldn't be made out of words." That might not sustain an entire novel, but it works perfectly in a short story.

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