July 10: “Revenge of the Dinosaurs” by Deborah Eisenberg

Hello, Story366! I’m back in Springfield, my three-day retreat in Fayetteville over. I’m so happy to have spent the evening with Karen and the boys. I loved writing, catching up on editing and teaching, loved the time to just think, to read, and to nap. Enough was enough, though, and it’s good to return to the norm, to the familiar.

One thing that happens when on retreat is seclusion from the outside world. It’s not like I go all Howard Hughes, Kleenex boxes on my feet, sunlight burning my skin into ash. I do withdraw, though, and didn’t pick up on the Dallas shootings or the other acts of violence against civilians that preceded them, not for more than a day after they happened. I didn’t turn on the TV during my stay in the hotel, and I drifted away from both news and social media. Karen mentioned something about Dallas to me, and sadly, with all the shootings that had happened before I left, I just assumed she was talking about an older incident. It wasn’t until I met with some friends one night that I realized that there were new incidents. I went back to the hotel and read up, horrified. Escaping from the world is a luxury, and it’s only about ten days a year that I get on these retreats. Still, I feel guilty for some reason that the whole country was mourning, was outraged, and I was ignorant of it all, oblivious, for around thirty-six hours. I’m lucky, in a way, to not know about something like that. Plus, it’s not like I was Superman, getting nasty with Lois Lane at the North Pole, while General Zod and his cronies took over the world. It’s not a culpable guilt.

In the end, I wonder if it’s going to get to the point when we all go away and turn off the news with the specific intention of avoiding whatever the next tragedy will be. Karen and I go on retreats to get away from the hubbub of two needy, noisy little boys. In the future, will these shootings become so commonplace that people will tune out, focus on something positive for a while, then hold their breath as they open up a newspaper, wondering not if, but what and where? I sure the fuck hope not. It’s getting closer and closer to that reality every day and I wonder, like everyone, where we go from here.

In any case, for today, I read from Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes, which came out from FSG a few years after 9/11 (speaking of tragedies), which is important, because the title story, “Twilight of the Superheroes,” is a 9/11-related, a story that I’ve read a couple of times before and is therefore eligible for the blog. Still, I have a somewhat amusing little anecdote about it: I assigned this story once, a long time ago, without reading it, as it’s in that Scribner’s contemporary anthology, and, well, when I first got that book and was constructing a syllabus, I thumbed through the table of contents and thought, Wow, a superhero story! Cool! Little did I know—did I mention I hadn’t read the story but assigned it, anyway?—the story is not about superheroes, not a fun story in that way, but about 9/11. My students had the same reaction, and since it’s a long story, I didn’t teach it again for a while. Enter, though, this past semester, me again using that Sribner’s anthology, and sure enough, as I was constructing a syllabus, I completely forgot the entire incident, the 9/11 angle, and assigned the story again, soliciting the exact same response from my students: “Hey, I thought this was going to be more like The Avengers, or maybe The Incredibles.” There you go.

Today, I’m writing about “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” the shortest story in the collection, still coming in at a healthy twenty-six pages (in a book of only six stories). Like “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the title is exciting, but misleading, as it’s not some Jurassic Park-style action story, or even Jaws: The Revenge, ferocious beasts taking on the human role of avenger. No, the title comes from a snippet of dialogue, along with a loose metaphorical connection. The story is actually about Lucille, better known as Lulu, a really unreliable first-person narrator who comes to New York from California to visit her very sick Nana, aka grandmother, who’s just had a second stroke. Lulu is unreliable in that she’s egotistical and uncaring, and in general, an oblivious dumbass, but it’s not like we can pick up on that right away. Her character is built through twenty-six pages of dialogue, both the regular kind and the inner kind. The story takes place at Nana’s apartment with Nana, Nana’s nurse Eileen, and eventually, Lulu’s brother Bill, his wife Peggy, and their daughter, Melinda; many other names are mentioned, including Lulu’s parents, another brother, Peter, the couple Lulu is staying with in the city, and Lulu’s boyfriend Jeff (A funny bit: Eisenberg spells Jeff’s name “Geoff” whenever Bill talks about him, as it’s a been a long-running mistakes he’s made on Christmas cards and such, Eisenberg carrying his error into Lulu’s narration). That’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but it makes sense, as this story is all about characters, people talking to each other and about each other, so everyone in their lives is mentioned, eventually. It’s an interesting voice, all this talking, coming off as stream-of-consciousness in a lot of ways, the story more or less in real time, just following the events of this afternoon at Nana’s. I’ll bet it wasn’t easy to get this voice, this rhythm, this style down, but in the end, it pays off, as the story reads so much differently than most stories, a challenging but worthwhile effort.

What we get out of all this dialogue and Lulu’s interiority is that this generation of this family is skewed, or better yet, messed up. Nana, kinda one of those dinosaurs from the title, had her quirks—in the frontstory, post-stroke, she just sits there, unresponsive—but was a solid foundation, especially financially. Lulu, as well as Bill, two generations later, seem to be in dire straits in terms of money, Lulu barely affording the trip, while Bill makes it clear how he has sacrificed to be Nana’s primary caregiver. All of this is subtle, but as Lulu and Bill argue about who gets to take what from Nana’s apartment, what’s worth selling, it’s becomes apparent that his generation has fallen on hard times.

The story is about so much more than money, though. It’s about Lulu, her view of the world, which Eisenberg relays by putting her in this absurd situation, making her react to it, to her brother, to the family members who aren’t there. As noted, the style here, as well as the voice, really stand out, Lulu’s biased and naïve narration of the events a real window into a mostly abandoned building. In twenty-six pages, Eisenberg paints a clear picture of a dysfunctional family, their quirks making them original, but at the same time, despicable and sympathetic.

Twilight of the Superheroes is Deborah Eisenberg’s seventh collection of stories, and since it came out in 2007, she’s published a collected stories edition in 2010 and picked up one of those MacArthur Genius Grants around the same time. Love that a short story writer, and her stories, are being recognized like that, as she’s certainly a worthy recipient.

Deborah Eisenberg