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Fables of the reconstruction

Twilight of the Superheroes Stories Deborah Eisenberg Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 226 pp., $23

January 29, 2006|Judith Lewis | Judith Lewis is a senior editor at LA Weekly.

"IN Europe," Giovanna tells Kate, the 40-something woman who centers Deborah Eisenberg's short story, "Like It or Not," "you still have the chance to lose your lovers to someone your own age." It's not long, though, before Kate finds herself resisting the urge to console a bored and beautiful young girl who has just spent the night with Kate's dinner companion, Harry. Kate doesn't know about the tryst, but the circumstance marks her as a woman not only excluded from the world of carnal pleasures but resigned to the situation -- why care about a game you'll never win? One day, it will be the same for the girl. "Be patient," Kate imagines herself saying. "It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow, next week you won't even remember

That's how it is for the people in Eisenberg's new book of stories, "Twilight of the Superheroes." They meander with little purpose through their mystifying days, gazing toward sprawling futures full of nothing in particular, blinking like newborn mice as they watch their accidental comforts -- the swank apartment, the too-good wine, the little blue-painted, rent-free room -- evaporate as comforts always do. There is Kristina, the pretty young waitress in "Windows," who hopes to stretch the fragile thread of a day's contentment through the rest of her life, even after her new husband leaves under sinister circumstances. Or Lulu, of "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," whose boyfriend stays in bed researching depleted uranium long after his funding for such research is denied. In the collection's title story, 24-year-old Nathaniel, uncertain and disoriented in New York City even before he sees the World Trade Center towers explode from his undeservedly plush downtown balcony, invents an antihero that could serve as an avatar for all of them: Passivityman, the sleepy-headed, defeated star of a comic strip that, Nathaniel admits, "was doted on by whole dozens, the fact was, of stoned undergrads."

Superficially, these are not stories every writer would consider worth telling. Someone in them is always dying, dead or disappearing -- mentally or physically -- and no one seems to have the slightest conviction that loss is to be accepted and grief overcome. But Eisenberg, with her wide embrace of metaphor and keen sense of the eternal -- the endlessly renewing cycle of human puttering -- understands that behind every unexceptional face are notions and visions no one else has ever known. "It's incredible," says Lulu, watching her once-refined grandmother languish and drool after a stroke, "I can't ever quite wrap my head around it -- that each life is amazingly abundant, no matter what, and every moment of experience is so intense." As Otto, in "Some Other, Better Otto," recognizes, watching his boyfriend William marvel at an infant, every baby has wonder in its eyes.

Urbane Otto suspects that the wonder is only our genes fighting to replicate themselves. Yet in giving words to the intensity of which Lulu speaks, Eisenberg lets us believe it's something more. Kate, over dinner with her male companion, describes with slightly drunken enthusiasm what it's like to teach biology to high school students: "It brings you to your knees, really.... There we are, looking at pictures of what's going on every instant inside our very own bodies!" Kristina, meanwhile, optimistically likens the passing of time to "unwrapping the real day from other days made out of splendid, fragile, colored tissue." At the end of "Windows," you want to follow her off the page and linger in her finely detailed if bleak little universe, where, among the people she loves, Kristina wafts -- pained, inert and, ultimately, dear.

The author of six previous collections, Eisenberg has long been in the business of elevating regular folk to literary status. Her stories are so skillfully crafted that they seem composed more of shapes and textures than of printed words. In "Transactions in a Foreign Currency" (1986), she gives weight and depth to the everyday troubles of ordinary women; the title story of "Under the 82nd Airborne" (1992), meanwhile, revolves around an aging, unemployed actress in war-ravaged Central America among CIA operatives and disaffected ex-pats. Throughout her work, she assiduously avoids endowing anyone, even the tortured artists and gifted students, with the noble power to endure hardship. These people are fascinating for the simple reason that they are recognizably, credibly human -- at once like everyone else and utterly unique.

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