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Nice Costume

Reading Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes,” I initially considered the story’s title to be a reference to the general crumbling of the idealistic concept of superheroes in the wake of 9/11.  As I became better acquainted with the characters in the story, however, and when the title became a subject of class discussion, it occurred to me very strongly that “Twilight of the Superheroes” might also be a reference to a concept just as expansive as that of the demise of all superheroes, if more terrestrial: the death of America as a superhero.

It is not just the New Yorkers in the story who lose their superpowers – not just Nathaniel being jerked out of his determined passivity or Lucien’s Cloak of Artistic Vision disintegrating from his shoulders – but The United States (and, by extension, its people), that loses its own sparkling mantle of thitherto impervious faith in its own goodness, and the protection that goodness was thought to have offered.  This all-American Armor of Positivity is what Lucien refers to when he speaks of “a curtain, a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city” (32-33).  Lucien’s curtain is torn by the planes, “exposing the dark world that lay right behind it,” just as America’s super alter ego was torn down by the same event.

The people of Lucien’s New York are aware of the new face being shown by their own city, and that of America at large. What’s more, there seems to be an understanding that is not new at all, but has always existed beneath a dashing mask, a mask which the same people are all too willing to reapply.  Lucien senses rawness, perhaps even furtiveness, clinging to those with whom he interacts: “people seem a little bit nervous, a little uncomfortable, a little wary. Because you can’t help sort of knowing that what you’re seeing is only the curtain. And you can’t help guessing what might be going on behind it” (37).The jumpy willingness of the peripheral characters in “Twilight of the Superheroes” to cover their world once more with a comfortable layer of ignorance, and even Nathaniel’s references to his and his friends’ recapturing of their abilities near the conclusion of the story, indicate that, while Eisenberg’s title definitively refers to the demise of superheroes, the fact that the sun has not yet set on their existence is vital.  Individually and as a nation, Eisenberg seems to indicate in “Twilight of the Superheroes” that Americans are not yet ready to let superpowers fade away entirely, even if it is too late to save them.

 

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