Deborah Eisenberg and the Post-9/11 Moment

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The title story of Deborah Eisenberg's 2006 Twilight of the Superheroes often makes it onto annual lists of "Best 9/11 Literature," and the inevitable onslaught of such inventories this fall will doubtlessly revisit the work.  But critics ignore the rest of the collection because they tend to fixate on 9/11 narratives that deal with the attacks themselves and the overt impact they have on the lives of characters.  In Twilight of the Superheroes, the effects of 9/11 play out in a subtler way.  Echoes of the attacks reverberate in the white noise of ordinary life, obscured and yet present in scenes of personal letdowns, troubled relationships, and familial crises.  Eisenberg's collection is not about 9/11 so much as it is about the post-9/11 moment.

Eisenberg's stories foreground how the ordinary absorbs cultural trauma and contorts to accommodate orange alerts, the War on Terror, and Halliburton-esque legal battles. They are not primarily concerned with cultural trauma, but rather seem focused on the process of "getting back to normal" after such a trauma.  They depict a period of American life fraught with tension, when things felt different, and during which we went about the quiet work of rebuilding a sense of ongoingness around a new set of expectations about the world.  Where "Twilight of the Superheroes" stands as the 9/11 story that anchors the book, the collection as a whole examines post-9/11 life, rehearsing the processes of working through collective trauma.  The event recedes into the background, even as it becomes constitutive of a new conception of the ordinary.

If for no other reason than its placement at the beginning of the book, "Twilight of the Superheroes" makes it clear that all of the subsequent stories take place in the post-9/11 moment.  It sets the tone for the collection and acts as a kind of prologue, giving us a sense of how characters feel their ordinary lives have changed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.  The story bounces between Lucien and his nephew Nathaniel, who each interpret 9/11 from a different generational perspective.  Nathaniel remembers the explosions simply as the "moment out on the terrace when Lyle spilled his coffee and said 'Oh shit,' and something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited."1 In Eisenberg's hands, 9/11 takes place in a single indeterminate instant.  Nathaniel cannot put his finger on the "something" that happened, and characterizes it only in the vernacular of his daily life.  Simply: before the attacks, the terrace had "the best view on the planet.  Then, one morning, out of a clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst" (16).  One moment the towers were visible in the skyline; and the next moment they weren't.  Yet the instantaneous change introduces a fraught period of indeterminate length in which we assume the characters will struggle to decide how exactly to remember the event.  Although the attacks occur in an instant, the noncommittal "for a while" suggests an inability on Nathaniel's part to determine how long this process will take.  And indeed at the story's end he is still standing out on the terrace, struggling to make the real world congeal into a new vision of the future.

Lucien too has trouble saying exactly what happened on 9/11, but for him the difficulty lies in trying to catalog all of the things that seem different for inexplicable reasons, and squaring them with the prevailing notion that everything is the result of the attacks.  He wonders, "Were the sudden power outages and spiking level of unemployment related?" (33).  At the same time, he observes that the wars in the Middle East are justified by a regular dose of nationalistic slogans: "patriotism, democracy, loyalty, freedom," though it seems that these terms "all might refer to money" (33).  The proliferation of rhetoric has as its goal the standardization of responses to the attacks, but Lucien resists this homogenization, and instead struggles to describe his own feelings.  He rejects blind faith in the government's response, but cannot shake the sense that his ordinary life has been poisoned by the political.  It is as though "All one's feelings had been absorbed by an arid wastelandpolicy, strategy goals" (36).  In the early part of the post-9/11 moment, the ordinary was overtaken by the exigencies of national security, and Lucien wonders what effect this will have on Nathaniel's generation.  In his words, it remains for them to "turn the page" and move forward into a post-9/11 world (42).

As a stand-alone story, "Twilight of the Superheroes" does not address how characters might move forward.  In the remainder of the collection, however, we see characters working through cultural trauma in ongoing scenes of ordinary experience.  In essence, "Twilight of the Superheroes" asserts that 9/11 broke the apparently smooth continuity between the past and the future, making it difficult for people to imagine a world in which their lives were not shot through with the effects of a cultural trauma.  But in fact the ordinary is constantly fracturing, and we are all constantly recovering from the events that impact our relationships with one another.  This building up and tearing down of the ordinary constantly occupies us, and Eisenberg's collection does not so much isolate the trauma of 9/11 as situate the ongoing process of recalibrating experience in a post-9/11 context.  In the remainder of the collection we meet characters whose ordinary lives have been fractured in different ways, and who like Nathaniel and Lucien struggle to overcome their inability to act.

As Eisenberg suggests in "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," Lucien and Nathaniel's haplessness feels justified in the face of a world that seems to have changed in the wake of the terrorist attacks.  Having come to visit her grandmother from the West Coast, Eileen thinks "flying is no joke these days!  The interrogations at the airport, and worrying about the nail scissors, and those dull boomings, even though you know it's only luggage getting vaporized" (180).  New security procedures have become the norm in air travel, as have new ways of talking about America's place in the world.  When Eileen meets her sister Juliette's new boyfriend Wendell, the pair's anti-Muslim rhetoric reflects both a fear of violence and the uncertainty that terrorism injects into ordinary routines.  To eliminate the constant threat of destabilization, Wendell offers, "Sure, let's just kill them, why not just kill them all" (175).  He uses fear as the justification for his extremism: "No one else in the word is frightened?" he asks indignantly (175).  Fear is the common negative affect produced, not only by the initial attacks on September 11, 2001, but by the historical context into which the event thrusts citizens of the wounded national body.  Images of armies attacking alleged terrorists claim to demonstrate the unified force of American powerbut instead, they simply remind individuals to feel fearful in the context of their ordinary lives.

Part of what makes the remaining stories interesting is their ability to push references to the events of 9/11/2001 even further to the margins.  These stories meditate on the recovery from various types of ordinary trauma, though they maintain the attacks subtly in the background of the events they narrate.  On a September day in "Window," for instance, Alma gapes at the same "insane blue skies" that Nathaniel views from his balcony in the title story.  For Alma, however, these skies hold not immediate disaster but a moment of respite from the protracted effects of a rapidly degenerating domestic relationship.  Similarly in "Some Other, Better Otto," we meet Portia, a nine-year old who obsesses about the end of the world.  Her concern is inscrutable to the other characters, but it is clear to the reader that the origins of her fear center on her parents' divorce, which occurred around 9/11.  Thinking of her own divorce in "Like it or Not," Kate remembers "the shocking pain" that she and her husband "had been forced to inflict on one another.  Eventually when they'd touched, it was like touching a wound" (103).  The intensity of the pain eventually dissipates, even though its mark remains present as a scar.  Kate recovers slowly and thinks, "It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow, next week you won't even remember..." (125).  Unlike Nathaniel and Lucien, Kate has a sense that with patience and persistence comes the possibility of moving forward.

We cannot point to a singular set of circumstances to define when the post-9/11 moment will end (or if it has already ended). There is no way to identify this moment via some simple metric: the waning of posttraumatic symptoms, fewer flashbacks, less fear, enough memorials.  In the long run, the post-9/11 moment may look like a discrete period during which narratives of national belonging attempted to dominate American life, and were slowly replaced by the business of the ordinary.  For this reason, Twilight of the Superheroes should be read, not necessarily as a book about 9/11, but as a collection that captures the sensation of living in between a cultural trauma and whatever comes after it.  It hangs in that moment immediately before the page has been turned.

As a parting thought, it strikes me that all of this might be overemphasizing the effect that one story has on an entire collectionor the shadow that one collection casts over an entire career.  Eisenberg has worked exclusively in short fiction, and in the recently published volume of her collected work, Twilight of the Superheroes takes up just about the last quarter.  It is not until page 784 that Nathaniel watches planes fly into the World Trade Center.  Eisenberg's work bears some formal and thematic similarities to that of Ann Beattie and Lorrie Moore (who, interestingly, were also collected within the last year).  But after this collection, will she be known as a post-9/11 writer? What responsibility do authors have now (as opposed to, say, six or seven years ago) to portray the effects of 9/11 on American society?  Using Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as an example, perhaps writers no longer have to take even more than a page to describe September 11, 2001.  They can move straight to the Bush administration and the effects of neoconservative politics on American family life.  But if the need to describe and re-describe 9/11 and the post-9/11 moment in America is indeed waning, what will we call the thing that comes next?  What might it mean for writers to work after a post-9/11 moment?

A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where he completed a Master's Degree in June 2010.  He is working on a collection of short fiction and blogs at The Tasty Spoonful.

  1. #1 Deborah Eisenberg, Twilight of the Superheroes (New York: Picador, 2006), 13.  Hereafter cited parenthetically. []