TWILIGHT OF THE SUPERHEROES by Deborah Eisenberg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 230 pages, $28.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
The final word in Deborah Eisenberg's marvellous collection of stories is "wartime," and, like every syllable she writes, it's precisely placed and significant.
These are tales for an uncertain time. Eisenberg's characters live lives that teeter on a ledge, with currents of violence, physical or emotional, about to knock them off at any moment.
The fallout of 9/11 hovers over the book, but only appears literally in the title story, a challenging elliptical tale partially set in a luxurious apartment across from the World Trade Center. A bravura piece of experimental narrative, it spans years and peers into the lives of everyone from an extended family of Ellis Island immigrants to an ambitious group of young friends who are trying to make their mark in the big city.
Eisenberg has mastered the art of compressing entire lives into a few dozen pages. A story like Some Other, Better Otto begins as a dysfunctional Thanksgiving tale about the absence of a schizophrenic sister at the dinner table, then spreads out to become a meditation on forgiveness and the brutal passage of time.
Another story, the haunting Like It Or Not, begins as a Jamesian tale of a middle-aged American schoolteacher set loose in Rome, then shifts gears in the final third to show us another character plagued by his own ghosts.
Eisenberg has devoted herself to the short story form as tirelessly as Munro, Carver or Paley, but has a wider range than any of them and a way of writing - "style" seems too precious a word - that catches life from every angle.
These aren't the easiest stories to read; they demand attention, require you occasionally to turn back a few pages to orient yourself. But you won't be able to read them just once.
Eisenberg reads Saturday (October 21) and takes part in a round table Sunday (October 22).