Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Twilight of the Superheroes | Some Other, Better Otto | Summary



Otto and his partner, William, have been together for more than 30 years with the exception of a few minor breakups, always instigated by Otto. Otto is a well-to-do lawyer while William, several years Otto's junior, is a proofreader and amateur violinist. William is the sunnier of the two men—handsome, an easy conversationalist, and endlessly supportive. By his own account Otto is a "fat, bald, confused person" and a world-class grump. He likes few people save William, and he does his best to keep a careful distance from his family, particularly his nagging sister Corinne and his adulterous brother, Martin. Otto only has a soft spot for Sharon, the baby of the family who is a mentally unstable genius.

Otto makes it a habit to avoid family gatherings, and he is caught off guard when Corinne calls him and invites him to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. She asks him to talk to Sharon, whom Corinne may have offended when she said only husbands and wives were invited to Thanksgiving. "Surely you remember when she brought that person to Christmas! The person with the feet?" Corinne says to Otto. Otto thinks Sharon should be able to bring whomever she wants—his decision to bring William to Christmas 30 years before actually solidified their relationship—but he agrees to talk to her.

Otto and William go to visit Sharon, whose apartment is tidy and clean, looking "as if it had been sealed up in some innocent period against approaching catastrophes." Sharon, who seems to have aged barely a day since childhood, spends most of her time either at the planetarium or in front of the computer Otto bought for her, studying math and space. They have a pleasant visit, Sharon briefly mentioning a "theoretical" sculpture she'd like to buy before launching into a conversation about human's relationship with time. Otto doesn't pay much attention—math and science go right over his head—and instead thinks about how difficult it is to tell "whether someone [is] knowledgeable or insane." Otto finally brings up Thanksgiving, and Sharon immediately declines the invitation. She doesn't want "to sit there being an exhibit of robust good health, or noncontaminatingness" or whatever it is Corinne wants from her.

Thanksgiving dinner is marked by the strange behavior of Portia, Martin's nine-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Portia spends the evening speaking into her fist as if it's a microphone while she interviews everyone in the family. Corinne thinks there's something wrong with the little girl and implies she might be crazy like Sharon or Viola, Portia's "psychotic" mother. Otto thinks she's fine—she's just playing around—but his defense is interrupted by Portia, who is in tears because her older cousins just told her the settlers killed the Indians. William distracts Portia by asking her what she got for her recent birthday. Her mother sent her two plane tickets to use when she turns 18. Portia doesn't think this will happen, as the Mayan calendar says the world is going to end when she's 17.

Otto receives a phone call from the hospital the next day. Sharon has been admitted after being mistaken as a homeless person while at the library. Otto rushes to the hospital. Sharon seems fine in the care of her doctor, who looks "like an epic hero—shining, arrogant, supple," even though she allegedly tried to bite a police officer. Otto treats Sharon to macaroni and cheese at a nearby coffee shop and feels like a monster for insisting he'll eat with William later.

Otto doesn't want to talk about what happened when he gets home, but does say he hates Sharon has to "live like this." William agrees. "Everyone is so alone," he says. That upsets Otto, who spends the rest of the night in his study thinking about the existence of multiple versions of every individual. Did each version suffer the same fate? "To think there could be an infinitude of selves, and not an iota of latitude for any of them!" Otto thinks. The idea is terribly depressing. He wonders if he could collect all his selves into one person, then completely loses his train of thought.

Otto and William's upstairs neighbors, Naomi and Margaret, stop by with their new adopted baby, Molly. Otto says he can't understand why anyone would ever want to have children, then wonders aloud whether William ever wanted to have a baby. "Did you want a baby? Have I ruined your life? Well, it's too bad. I'm sorry," he says, not sorry at all. William says he's happy as he is, then gets up to get more champagne. Naomi is also embarrassed, but Margaret saves the conversation by conceding some of Otto's points and making a few of her own before redirecting the conversation to Molly's adoption.

Otto apologizes to William after the women leave. "I don't need to tell you how ashamed I'll feel the minute I calm down," he says before trying to pick another fight. William has had enough. He doesn't know why Otto is unhappy, but he needs sleep before his concert tomorrow and doesn't want to talk about it anymore. Otto goes off on a tangent about grammar, sobs at the kitchen table, and then thinks about Sharon. William puts his hand on Otto's shoulder. Otto realizes where he is and who he's with. He wonders if he's been sleeping. "It's late, my darling," Otto says, "I'm tired. What are we doing down here?"


"Some Other, Better Otto" is about the multitude of selves that seem to reside in every person. Most people are good at hiding these different versions of themselves, and the few who struggle to do so are categorized as "crazy" or "different." The most obvious example in this story is Sharon, who seems completely lucid and quite normal, if a little socially awkward, during her visit with Otto and William. She's nothing like the raging woman who reportedly tries to "dentally menace" a police officer. Sharon seems to be two separate people—Otto's smart, sweet youngest sister and a violent, raving lunatic. Her unspecified mental illness appears to be related to these different selves because of how much her personality changes when she has an "episode." Sharon never knows when the dark side of her personality will take over, and she can't control herself when it starts to happen. Her different selves rule her life to a point where she can't function in normal society or even at a family gathering.

Otto's selves do the same thing, albeit more subtly. Though he doesn't become violent like Sharon, he does seem to turn into a different person when he's agitated. One minute he's gearing up for a fight about the biological instinct to produce and the next he's wondering whether there's anything to eat. Otto's wild mood swings and the frequent breaks in his train of thought indicate there's something a little wrong about him too. The reader can see this, but Otto can't. By the time he regains control of himself, most of his tirades turn into blank periods of time he can't remember. Sharon goes through the same thing. She can't remember trying to bite a police officer just like Otto can't remember how upset he was over William's incorrect grammar. But Otto seems to be better equipped than Sharon to reel himself in before things get too bad. "Relax, relax ... Relax, relax," he chants to himself before turning placid once again.

Part of Otto's struggle with his different selves is he's always chasing after the one living his "real life," which is "more vivid, more truly his, than the one that was daily at hand." Though he claims not to care about money, Otto always wants more of everything it can buy—the nicest dinnerware and furniture, the most handsome partner, the most enviable lifestyle. Material objects give him a sense of value when he is unable to identify any good qualities in himself, but they don't make him a better person. Otto's ideas about "real life" are nothing more than fantasies that turn to dust each time he chases them. In the end he is always back together with William, ensconced in their comfortable house or taking nice vacations. It's nice, but there's always the sense something better looms over the horizon. Otto represents the universal human longing for a more exciting and fulfilling life. This hardly makes him unique—everyone feels this at some point in their lives—but he is an outlier among his friends and family in that he lets these feelings stop him from enjoying what he already has. "We have everything we need and most of the things we want," William tells Otto at the end of the story; "I'm happy, I wish you were." Otto chooses not to be happy because he equates happiness with giving up hope for the wonderful life he could be leading.

Family is also an important theme in "Some Other, Better Otto." Though Otto is genetically related to his siblings, he hardly feels close to Corinne and Martin, neither of whom he respects much. He loves Sharon, but he can't relate to her intelligence, and the time they spend together is spoiled by his habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Family is more of a burden than a blessing to Otto, who was relieved to finally be free from familial obligation after his mother's death. Yet he didn't cut himself off entirely from his family—he continues to offer legal advice and help nieces and nephews get summer internships, and he even allows strained telephone conversations once in a while. Otto wants to be involved, but only to a certain point. This is partly because of the distance he feels between himself and the rest of the family, which may stem from their early reactions to his sexual orientation. Otto brought William to Christmas 30 years before, knowing full well how scandalous it would be. "They've never sanctioned my way of life," he told William that night on the way home. But they also never said anything directly to him about it. Otto's assumptions about his family's feelings are based on his own insecurities and sense of being different. He's an outcast because of the way he views himself, not because of how his family sees him.

Otto isn't an easy character to understand, nor is he very likable. That's not unusual for Deborah Eisenberg's protagonists and main characters. Just like actual humans, no one in her stories is ever completely good or completely evil. Otto takes care of his sister when no one else in the family will, yet he picks fights with his kind and even-keeled partner in front of guests. He feels remorse for hurting William but can't keep himself from criticizing the desire to have children in front of two women who just adopted a baby. He knows the rules of social etiquette but can't be bothered to follow them—or is unable to follow them—all the time. Otto is neither a hero nor a villain; he's human, just like the rest of Eisenberg's characters.

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