The Great American Novel used to be literature's giant glass mountain. Now, it seems, we've switched to Making Sense of Sept. 11 as the ultimate unattainable goal.
Celebrated writers such as Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Anita Shreve all have taken a run at it, but none have come closer to the top than Deborah Eisenberg in the short story that gives the title to Twilight of the Superheroes.
While she may not have scaled the summit, Eisenberg's tale of four 20-somethings who sublet a New York apartment and find themselves with front-row balcony views of the attacks on the World Trade Center, manages to avoid the bog of clichés and forced conclusions that stymied other works.
"When they moved in, it probably was the best view on the planet. Then, one morning, out of the clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst."
The story is told in fragments from the points of view of Nathaniel, who is working on a comic book called Passivityman, and his Uncle Lucien, who got Nathaniel and his friends the apartment.
"The good-hearted, casually wasteful festival was over.... For a long miserable while, in fact, the city looked like a school play about war profiteering," Lucien thinks about New York in the months following the tragedy.
Then he decides that, no, it's more as if everyone's acting as if they're in a badly written propaganda film.
"True, it looked something like the New York that existed before all this began but Lucien remembered, and he could see: the costumes were not quite right, the hairstyles were not quite right, the gestures and the dialogue were not quite right."
While it's the title of the collection,"Twilight of the Superheroes" isn't actually the best story in Eisenberg's new collection.
That distinction goes to "Some Other, Better Otto," in which a 60-something lawyer contemplates his complicated family relations and worries about his mentally unstable sister and the nature of the self.
"To think there could be an infinitude of selves, and not an iota of latitude for any of them! An infinitude of Ottos, lugging around that personality, those circumstances, that appearance. Not only once dreary and pointless, but infinitely so."
But as Otto natters on about grammar and banality, he's quietly offered more generosity and forgiveness than he seems capable of extending.
Also outstanding is the novella-length "Window." Leaving the city behind, the story follows a teenage girl as she attaches herself to a Texas survivalist who isn't exactly careful with his fists. Expected to care for his toddler son, Kristina ends up taking her assignment more seriously than her husband may have wanted.
Other memorable characters in the collection include a woman who has an affair while worrying about her husband and her intelligent, emotionally fragile son and a formerly vibrant woman, felled by a stroke, who sits watching a black-and-white TV while her grandchildren talk about disposing of her possessions.
There is one clunker in the bunch: "Like It or Not," the only story to abandon an American setting. In it, a divorced biology teacher takes a European tour with a titled art collector. Midway through, the story switches to the collector's point of view, to diminished resonance (and a tepid one-night stand with a bored teenager).
"Like It or Not" aside, in just a handful of tales Eisenberg offers enough insight and intelligent observation to amply justify her reputation as the American Alice Munro.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.