Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Twilight of the Superheroes | Themes


Lives Unlived

With few exceptions, Deborah Eisenberg's characters in the six stories that make up Twilight of the Superheroes don't believe in fate. They see their lives as a series of choices that led them to where they are now. Several characters can't help but wonder how their lives would have turned out differently if they had chosen different paths. This is the case for Kate in "Like It or Not," who wonders if she would have been better off rejecting her ex-husband's marriage proposal all those years ago. She wouldn't necessarily have a perfect life, or one of wealth and fame, but she might be happier.

Lucien from "Twilight of the Superheroes" considers the lives New Yorkers and their loved ones didn't get to live. He keeps waiting for September 11, 2001, "to unhappen" so the future "that had been implied by the past, could unfold." Not only would that mean less sorrow and fear, but also being oblivious to the suffering and hate emanating from other parts of the world. September 11 forced Americans to see what their privilege had previously blinded them to. Now that they have seen it, it can't be ignored.

Otto from "Some Other, Better Otto" spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of time. He reasons "if time was the multiplicity Sharon and William seemed to believe it was," then there are many different Sharons, Williams, and Ottos. Maybe some of those Sharons aren't living the life of a secluded, mentally unstable genius. Maybe they have families and jobs. Maybe they're happy. Maybe they're not alone. But there's also the possibility each self follows different trajectories to end up in the same place. Otto theorizes the number of different selves each person has is why people feel so incomplete. Maybe every "creature on earth ... was straining at the obdurate membranes to reunite as its own original entity." Trying to figure out whether one's other selves are living better lives is depressing. Attempting to reunite all those selves into one person is the reason why so many people feel so alone.


Despite their intimate relationships and other personal connections, many of the characters in Twilight of the Superheroes experience a profound sense of loneliness. Lucien from "Twilight of the Superheroes" has felt lonely since the death of his wife; Kristina from "Window" has been lonely ever since Alma left the projects and started a life of her own. Oliver from "The Flaw in the Design" feels very alone even while in his mother's embrace. Even Otto from "Some Other, Better Otto" sometimes feels alone in his relationship of more than 30 years. Eisenberg's characters all seem to suffer from the same sense of isolation or separateness that often comes with deep personal introspection. Their gazes are focused so far inward they can't see the connections they have with others.

The idea of each person being alone in the world isn't new. As the narrator of "Some Other, Better Otto" says, "one comes into the world alone, snore snore, snore snore, departs the world alone." It's the natural state of things at the beginning and end of life. But what about the middle? That is supposedly the place where loneliness ceases. Bonds are formed and lives are built together. Eisenberg's collection of six stories suggests the opposite. Couples like William and Otto who build their lives together are still distinctly separate individuals. They have different thoughts and experiences and they process the events of their lives in different ways. Because of that no one can ever truly know someone else. That's what William is talking about when he tells Otto, "Everyone is so alone."


Getting older is a recurring theme in Twilight of the Superheroes. Some characters, such as Otto from "Some Other, Better Otto" and Lucien from "Twilight of the Superheroes," wonder how and when they became so old. Otto doesn't think of himself or his partner William as growing older—he imagines they are pretty much the same as when they met 30 years ago. He is always surprised when he sees an older man peering back at him from the mirror, and he catches himself wondering about "the middle-aged person coming toward him on the street" who turns out to be William. The same thing happens to Lucien, who asks himself over and over how he and his friends began "falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age." Lucien had of course seen other people grow old, but he never thought it would actually happen to him.

Harry and Kate from "Like It or Not" also have qualms about aging. Kate, a teacher in her late 40s, is acutely aware of her ever-advancing age. She doesn't go to the hotel bar by herself because "women of her age were conspicuous on their own. People tended to pity, even fear you," the narrator explains. Getting older makes her feel like she has fewer and fewer choices about how she can live her life. Men her age, including ex-boyfriend Rowan, claim they don't want commitment then run off with women barely in their 20s. Older women are obsolete, as least in the United States. As Giovanna helpfully points out, in Europe one "still [has] the chance to lose [one's] lovers to someone [one's] own age."

Harry's struggles with aging are slightly different. He worries not about how age restricts him, but about how losing's one's youth means never again experiencing what it feels like to be young. He is attracted to Mrs. Reitz's daughter—known in the book only as "the girl" because of her youth. Her beauty is only a small part of the reason why he's drawn to her. She is both innocent and self-assured, untouched by the difficult realities of adulthood. "Perhaps never again would she be so dazzled by the primacy of her own life," the narrator says. Harry envies that feeling of self-importance, as well as the sense of wonder that is part and parcel of being young. "The miraculous human landscapes" and "long, brilliant nights" that are the mainstays of youth are no longer his to experience.

Younger characters, like Nathan in "Twilight of the Superheroes," also worry about aging. Nathan is 28 now, but "in a few more minutes he'd be thirty-five, then fifty ... He was eighty!" Time is moving quickly and Nathan worries he will never have anything to show for his time on Earth. Lulu from "Revenge of the Dinosaurs" picks up this line of thought while sitting with her grandmother, who recently suffered two strokes. Lulu marvels at how little of the human experience exists outside of one's body when "each life is so amazingly abundant ... and every moment of experience is so intense." Nana experienced a rich and full life, but when she dies the only tangible evidence of her existence will be the book she wrote about currency. That's the type of end Nathan fears.

Avoiding Reality

All six of the stories in Twilight of the Superheroes take place in the years following September 11, 2001. The attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania have different effects on each of Eisenberg's characters. Some of them are paralyzed by fear of the future while others are prompted to question their own mortality and contributions to the world. There are also a few characters who live in abject denial that anything is different or wrong. Lulu from "Revenge of the Dinosaurs" is a good example of this. While watching a television newscast she sees images of soldiers marching, people protesting, and buildings exploding and collapsing. Her thoughts immediately veer away the meaning of what she is seeing to the fact she and her partner don't own a television. No matter what she sees, she relates it back to her own life. She's so concerned with herself she never has a moment to think about the outside world. Her self-involvement also helps her avoid facing the reality of her grandmother's deteriorating health.

The unnamed female narrator of "The Flaw in the Design" attempts to do the same thing as Lulu, though she's not quite as successful. She, too, ignores the reality of the world outside her insular, privileged life, though she does acknowledge how lucky she is to be so well-off. She also tries to ignore what's happening with her son, Oliver, whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic. Something big is bothering Oliver. Eisenberg never explicitly says what's wrong, but it caused him to come home from college during the middle of the school year. Whatever it is, it's causing major panic attacks. The narrator's husband thinks Oliver is just being dramatic, and the narrator is inclined to agree. She refuses to dig deeper into her son's despair so as not to upset her own sense of safety and security. As long as she pretends everything is OK, the family will be fine.

Kristina from "Window" is also in denial about her personal life. She runs away with a man she doesn't know in pursuit of a life better than the one she currently has. Life with Eli is far from perfect—she's essentially an unpaid, live-in nanny who is confined to the house, surrounded by deadly weapons. She has no means of contacting the outside world, nor anyone else except Eli, gossipy Liz, and an unhappy baby as company. She refuses to acknowledge the reality of the situation because of the good parts of it, namely having Eli's attention and affection feel like nothing she's ever experienced before. She does not see she is being kept prisoner, nor does she see how dangerous Eli really is. She initially overlooks Zoe's unexplained absence and chooses to ignore Liz's comments about how Eli "put up with [Zoe's] shit for a long, long time before he even began to lose patience." Kristina even manages to paint Eli's violent outburst in a flattering light by pointing out that "whatever barrier had been between them was gone now, completely." Even after she leaves, she continues to think about Eli and remembers their life together as the greatest thing that ever happened to her.

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