Literature Study GuidesTwilight Of The SuperheroesTwilight Of The Superheroes Summary

Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Course Hero. "Twilight of the Superheroes Study Guide." Course Hero. 24 Feb. 2018. Web. 16 Oct. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Twilight-of-the-Superheroes/>.

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Course Hero. "Twilight of the Superheroes Study Guide." February 24, 2018. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Twilight-of-the-Superheroes/.

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Course Hero, "Twilight of the Superheroes Study Guide," February 24, 2018, accessed October 16, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Twilight-of-the-Superheroes/.

Twilight of the Superheroes | Twilight of the Superheroes | Summary

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Summary

Nathaniel is a 20-something midwesterner-turned-New Yorker. He lives in a luxurious yet inexpensive sublet apartment with three of his friends, Madison, Amity, and Lyle. They have lived there for three years thanks to the kindness of the apartment's out-of-town owner, Mr. Matsumoto, who is friends with Nathaniel's Uncle Lucien, a widower. "Twilight of the Superheroes" catches Nathaniel and Lucien almost three years after the events of September 11, 2001. Though their memories span years—in Lucien's case, decades—the scene takes place over the course of just a few minutes.

The story opens with Nathaniel ruminating about how he'll describe the anticipation of the year 2000 to his grandchildren. He then realizes by the time he's old enough to be a grandfather people won't know what computers are. He'll have to explain "celebrity clairvoyants and airplanes and New York and America and even cities."

Across town Lucien is thinking about the phone call he received from Mr. Matsumoto that morning. Mr. Matsumoto is moving back to New York, which means Nathaniel and his friends have to move out of his apartment, which they have called home for three years. The palatial apartment has a wonderful view of the New York City skyline, but there's now a hole where the World Trade Center used to be. Nathaniel and his friends were having breakfast on the terrace when "something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited."

Nathaniel remembers the horror of that morning while Lucien stands alone in his darkened art gallery, thinking about his deceased wife, Charlie. She appears "from behind a door in [the 20th] century." He assures her he'll help Nathaniel find a new apartment and promises to placate Nathaniel's high-strung parents, Isaac and Rose, who will undoubtedly call Lucien in hysterics about their son's life. Lucien is generally annoyed by Charlie's sister and her husband, who both immigrated to the United States as young children and see Lucien as an expert on everything American.

Lucien and Charlie visited Nathaniel's family when Nathaniel was eight or nine years old. To Nathaniel they seemed so different compared to his parents—sophisticated, kind, and full of life. Nathaniel told himself he would "get to the world from which his magic aunt and uncle had once briefly appeared" when he was ready and "worthy." Yet for years he made excuse after excuse not to go until four years ago when Amity accused him of being afraid of failure. Nathaniel panicked, and then realized the very same panic that led his ancestors to America would lead him to New York City. But now that he's there, nothing much has changed. Even the star of his weekly comic strip, Passivityman, can't be bothered to fight his archnemesis, Captain Corporation. "I guess he's sort of losing his superpowers," Nathaniel tells his concerned friends, who seem to be losing their superpowers themselves. Nathaniel takes stock of his life and wonders if he should "view Mr. Matsumoto's return as an opportunity, and regroup. Maybe he should do something." He thinks about a woman named Delphine, a foreigner who left New York after September 11.

Lucien's thoughts have strayed to the events of September 11, too. He thinks about how the city has changed, from the types of pets people own to the greed of business executives to the lack of smiling people on the street. Lucien feels like he's living in "an inaccurate representation of the past" or a propaganda movie. Things look like they're back to normal, but everyone is nervous. "You can't help sort of knowing that what you're seeing is only the curtain" that hides the ugly side of life, Lucien thinks. He wonders what's behind it this time. Charlie leaves the gallery, looking back at Lucien "across the thin, inflexible divide." She sees children from a far-off planet studying pictures of Lucien, Rose and Isaac, and Nathaniel in their textbook. They turn the page.

Analysis

Not much happens in "Twilight of the Superheroes." The scene begins and ends with Lucien standing alone in his art gallery and Nathaniel sitting on the terrace of his apartment, drinking champagne with friends. No decisions are made; no lives are changed. At the end of the story the characters find themselves exactly where they began. So what's the point? As with much of author Deborah Eisenberg's work, it is imperative to look beyond the surface of the text—what the characters do and say—to discover what the story is really about. In this case Nathaniel's and Lucien's memories are conduits for Eisenberg's exploration of what it was like to live in New York City following the events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center.

It is important to note how Eisenberg's characters think about that day and the events that transpired. Never referred to by its calendar date, September 11, 2001, it is instead "that shining, calm, perfectly blue September morning" when Nathaniel and his friends heard "the annoying racket of a low-flying plane." Then the sky-colored "curtain" is drawn back, revealing the turmoil boiling just out of sight. New Yorkers and the rest of the American population can see what their privilege and relative wealth have hidden for dozens of years: anger, pain, and despair. New York City is no longer "the threshold of an impregnable haven" but instead "the country's open wound." Feelings of loss, loneliness, and fear wash over its residents. Lifelong New Yorkers like Lucien feel as if their memories and very way of life are under siege by dark, unknown entities. Newer, younger transplants to the city, like Nathaniel and his friends, find their personal and professional dreams disappearing into thin air. The characters in "Twilight of the Superheroes" don't change, but New York City does. No matter what people like Mr. Matsumoto think, the city will never be "back to normal." "Normal" never existed in the first place. It was an illusion, the metaphorical curtain that hid the dangerous and terrifyingly ugly side of humanity. Even though the curtain has been replaced, things will never be the same. As Lucien notes, "The good-hearted, casually wasteful festival was over."

"Twilight of the Superheroes" is also a story about stasis, or inactivity. The two main characters, Nathaniel and Lucien, are metaphorically stuck at particular parts of their lives, and neither has the inclination to do anything about it. Nathaniel came to New York City to finally do something with his life, but he ends up stuck in the same rut he wallowed in back in the Midwest. Like his alter ego Passivityman, Nathaniel can't be bothered to do anything anymore. He has lost interest in the ideals Passivityman once fought for—the suppression of greed, rejection of ambition—and has somehow sunk even lower, no longer standing for anything at all. Nathaniel's utter ambivalence to his own life is like a protective cloak. If he doesn't try or care, he can't fail. But he also can't move forward. When finally forced to make a change and move out of Mr. Matsumoto's apartment, Nathaniel's thoughts stray from something attainable, like a new apartment, to the elusive and enigmatic Delphine. Just as he fantasized about New York City as a child, Nathaniel avoids the realities of the present by thinking about the "delicious champagne-style dream" that is the mysterious Delphine. He can be whoever he wants with whomever he wants in his fantasy life. His real life is far more disappointing and intimidating.

It's unclear whether Lucien is really seeing ghosts or just talking to the memories of people he once knew, but in either case he's escaping into a fantasy life just like his nephew. Charlie died before the turn of the 21st century, but Lucien hasn't moved on. He playacts as if everything is fine, throwing parties and mounting new shows at his gallery, but he is still living in the past. He feels the same way about Charlie as he does the events of September 11, 2001, wishing for "that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real—the intended—future" he was once so sure of "could unfold." When Lucien talks to Charlie he is living the life they would have had together had she not fallen ill. But unlike Nathaniel, who refuses to move on with his life out of fear, Lucien stays where he is out of confusion and fatigue. He feels old, and the world suddenly doesn't make sense anymore. He doesn't move on because there's nowhere to go. His life is in New York, as are his memories of Charlie. Finding a new relationship, or even a new home, would be like leaving Charlie behind.

"Twilight of the Superheroes" covers many more topics: the evolution of the individual, the deliberate ignorance of Americans, growing up, growing old, and familial obligations, just to name a few. Yet Eisenberg indicates this is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The last few lines of the story, which show intergalactic children reading a book, indicate the insignificance of individual lives and how they were lived. Though each person thinks their thoughts and feelings to be more important and noteworthy than everyone else's, at the end of the day every person is just a drop of water in an ocean of humanity. No one is more important than the rest, and everyone's story will eventually be forgotten. An optimist would view this as confirmation Lucien and Nathaniel shouldn't fear change—their lives make little difference in the larger context of the world, so they have nothing to lose by moving forward. But a postmodernist like Eisenberg would simply accept it as the way things are. People live and die. Wars are won and lost. None of it makes a difference in the end.

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