Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Twilight of the Superheroes | The Flaw in the Design | Summary



An unnamed female narrator returns home after a hotel rendezvous with an unnamed man. Her husband, John, is already at home, as is their college-aged son, Oliver. The family lives in "a government town," and John is a consultant of some sort. For years they lived outside of the United States, traveling with John as he worked in "underdeveloped" countries like Nigeria, Burma, and Ecuador. They returned to the United States several years ago.

Dinner is tense that night. Oliver, who is home from school for the week, tries to rile up his father throughout the meal. Oliver's words may be earnest, but his tone is condescending and patronizing. He waxes poetic about how lucky the family is to have such a wonderful dinner in a "beautiful, architecturally unimpeachable open-plan ... area" and how easy it will be for him to find a job thanks to his family's privilege. Then he brings up "Uncle Bob." Bob Alpers is an old family friend who is testifying before a government body about something he may or may not have done. Oliver needles his father about the day's events in court, but John insists nothing will come of it. Oliver floats the idea Bob is going to "start naming names" so he can "retire in style." John finally loses his patience, and as the narrator describes her own reaction, "a white space cleaves through my brain as if I'd actually slapped Oliver."

Oliver eventually changes the subject and asks what his parents did today. The narrator tells her husband and son she went to the museum. Oliver jokes he didn't do anything except go on a "killing spree" in his girlfriend's physics class. John isn't amused.

Later in their bedroom, John asks the narrator if Oliver has reconsidered his decision not to see a psychiatrist. John thinks there's something wrong with Oliver's mind, but the narrator insists his behavior is normal for someone his age. "This is a hard world for young people," she says. John thinks Oliver is being much more dramatic than necessary—after all, he and the narrator never acted this way. The narrator is forced to concur. When she was Oliver's age, she yearned for a life just like that of her parents, "a cozy old house on a sloping lawn, magnolias and lilacs." John says he regrets ever having worked outside the country.

The narrator is now in Oliver's bedroom, stroking his hair as they lie on the bed. She thinks about a folktale she overheard him tell his girlfriend yesterday. It was entirely new to the narrator, who thinks Oliver must have heard it from a native of one of the countries in which they used to live. It strikes the narrator as odd he chooses that story to tell Katie and not one she, his mother, told him. The narrator has never liked any of Oliver's girlfriends, who all seem rather depressed and unkempt. She suggests Katie is too dependent on Oliver, and then reminds him to use "protection." Oliver tells her, "Whatever you're fantasizing just isn't the case."

The narrator remembers how life used to be when they were living abroad. At the time, she knew Americans weren't necessarily welcome in the places they used to live, but everyone always seemed very nice. Oliver had plenty of playmates, mostly the children of other foreigners, but he desperately wanted to play with local kids. John forbade it, but the narrator let him do it when John was out of town. At first the narrator enjoyed living outside the United States, but the longer they stayed away, the more it felt to her they "were standing in a shrinking pool of light, with shapes moving at the edges."

On Sundays the family would go to luxurious hotels for traditional English teas. One particular hotel was "so serene, so grand," with tall windows overlooking the busy streets outside. The waiters wore white uniforms "that made their skin look like satin, dark satin." One afternoon while they were having tea some sort of explosion went off. The waiters pulled the curtains closed and conversation resumed.

The narrator turns her attention to Oliver once more. She says she's worried about him, and he starts talking nonsense about "giant footfalls, the marauder coming, cracking the earth." "What can we do, Ma?" he asks. "We can't hide." He panics and grabs her by the shoulders. "Are you protected by a magic cloak? The cloak of the prettiest girl at school?" he demands. The narrator's heart feels lodged in her throat, but she remains outwardly calm and asks if he wants to drop one of his classes.

Back in their bedroom, John tells the narrator they're out of coffee. She's horrified she forgot to purchase some earlier in the day. He offers to get some and leaves. While he's gone the narrator thinks about the stranger she slept with that afternoon. She was on her way to the museum when she spotted him on the metro. It was instant attraction. They hurried off the train, into a taxi, then to a well-appointed hotel. He slipped her a business card afterward, which she threw away. She has already forgotten his name.


"The Flaw in the Design" is about the different ways in which people respond to ever-increasing global unrest, as well as how they react to the disruptions in their own lives. The unnamed, first-person female narrator of the story deals with disturbances at home and abroad by simply pretending they don't exist. The story about the bombing is a good example. She pays far more attention to what she was wearing and what she was doing prior to the explosion than she does to what happened afterward. She says normal conversation resumed after the waiters closed the long white drapes to block the world outside. The curtains represent the narrator's desire to separate herself from the experiences of the natives of the countries in which she temporarily lives. As long as she can't see what is going on beyond the walls of the Western hotel, she can forget about it. It's no coincidence the curtains are white—her white privilege and status as a Westerner in African and South American nations protect her from the realities of life there. Her recollection of the bombing ends when the curtains close because, for her, that's the entire story. She doesn't know who set the bomb or why, and she doesn't make any effort to find out.

This is also how the narrator reacts to problems at home. Oliver's sudden return from college has not been easy on the family. The son to whom she was once very close seems like a different person now. His words and behavior scare the narrator, but she can't bring herself to acknowledge his issues go beyond the usual teen angst and drama. While Oliver rants about faceless, nameless monsters coming to kill everyone, the narrator gently lectures him about safe sex and wonders if he needs to drop one of his classes. Instead of acknowledging her son needs some sort of support or help, she tells herself he'll eventually grow out of it. His current mental state isn't her problem to deal with.

The narrator works hard to cultivate an air of happiness and contentment wherever she is, be it in their well-appointed home in Washington, D.C., or a suburban compound in a foreign country. She balances the moods of her husband and son and acts as the mediator between the two. She can't maintain the perfect-wife-and-mother facade if she allows herself to think about the terrible things going on in the rest of the world, much less in her home. But "The Flaw in the Design" hints the narrator won't be able to keep up appearances forever. Her spur-of-the-moment affair with a stranger isn't just completely out of character—it suggests she isn't coping with life as well as she would like people to think. Her brief affair is a respite from the tension in her home, the hearings on Capitol Hill, and the ugly reality of the modern world. She was anonymous in that room, and because she didn't know the man she was with she could mentally mold him into the exact person she needed him to be.

Oliver, the narrator's son, doesn't have the same coping skills as his mother, and he seems to be falling apart. His brazen performance at dinner can in part be attributed to the teenage desire to needle one's parents, but there's also an element of truth to it. Oliver spent much of his childhood overseas in what Westerners consider to be "underdeveloped" nations. Though his parents tried to shield him from seeing how the natives lived, they weren't able to prevent him from absorbing the little he did see. He would have been with his parents when the bomb went off near the hotel, and the narrator allowed him to sometimes play with the local kids whose lives were so very different from his own. The narrator grew up in a traditional American family in a traditional American neighborhood and always imagined that same life for herself. Oliver didn't have that life. He saw what the world was really like. Just as his mother's memories of childhood stick with her, the memories of his childhood stick with him. When he says he'll be able to get a job because of his father's connections and the family's social status, he's speaking the truth. Oliver knows how privileged he is. He also knows it's unfair. This is why he's always so angry with his father, who represents the spread of Western ideals Oliver thinks is tearing apart the planet. "Poverty? My fault. Injustice? My fault. War somewhere? Secret prisons? Torture? My fault," John seethes to the narrator. John's attempts to protect his son from the realities of the world majorly backfired.

Oliver's breakdown near the end of the story goes beyond anger at his father and his own position in the world. He's visibly terrified of something. The narrator isn't sure what it is, and Eisenberg doesn't provide very many clues. Oliver sees himself "way off in the distance, coming apart, flailing up the hill" while "the tight little ball of fire hisses and spits and falls toward the sea." Soon the ball of fire will be extinguished. This could be referencing multiple things: political tensions between the United States and the Middle East, potential attacks on U.S. soil, a crumbling economy. But there's a good chance Oliver is freaking out about the state of the environment. His father works in the energy sector—he used to tell the narrator about "great arteries of oil that could be made to flow to every part of the planet"—and the things Oliver describes go along with the idea environmental change will end life on Earth. He talks about the roots of trees being shaken, the earth cracking, and "jumping from [ice] floe to floe." The ball of fire that goes out could very well be the sun. He's panicking not only because it feels like the world is ending, but because of the role his father played. His parents' purposeful misunderstanding of his concerns makes him even more upset. Oliver is depressed and scared. And because his parents insist on pretending everything is all right, he is also completely alone.

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