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Nathaniel's View From Mr. Matsumoto's Balcony, Twilight of the Superheroes

We are to imagine a balcony. A grand foothold onto a glittering sea of towers and triumphs: New York City. In the section titled “View” four pages into Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Twilight of the Superheroes” – not even earning that demonstrative, expected, “The” – we step out onto this balcony behind a “magic sliding panel” that releases us “halfway to heaven” (7). This view becomes our window unto New York City, but also into the story. We are to understand that this story is ultimately about the view, a view both privileged and uncertain. We believe we have the best view of New York City. That thanks to this spectacular balcony, the city unfurled thirty-one stories below us in all its glory – that we’re gifted something of clairvoyance. There’s an expectation that somehow we can see the city better than others.

Diving into the exuberant language of the section “View” reveals that “Twilight’ is a narrative of “magic sliding doors.” They open to reveal a character’s point-of-view, only to close abruptly again. The view is always fleeting and ephemeral. It’s in this fragment of “Twilight” that we first see the tycoon Mr. Matsumoto’s luxurious loft, and more importantly his floating balcony: his claim on the city. Interestingly, however, we see this famed view not through its rightful owner’s eyes, but through Nathaniel’s, a young Midwestern transplant and the nephew of Mr. Matsumoto’s colleague, Lucien. The story delays introducing us to Nathaniel, the linchpin holding the story’s teeming acrobatics together, until the “View” section beginning on the fourth page. It’s as though the story starts and stops, rattling along like an antiquated Subway car; there’s an existential doubt at the center of the narrative that prods its constant recalibration.

As a result, this “View” arrives already framed. The view through which we first take in the city is purely accidental. It is Nathaniel’s and his Greek chorus of super hero friends, young and poor like so many in the city, but thanks to some wondrous twist of fate, living out a dream of sublet glamour. Our perch onto the story, so much like Nathaniel’s balcony, is a result of: chance. In any other instance, this would not be who gets to tell the story.

Nathaniel’s accidental point-of-view exaggerates our shared sense of idealism. “And the terrace!” he announces with an exclamation point after a brief foray through the interior of Mr. Matsumoto’s loft. It is a breathless fragment; we can feel the plummet of Nathaniel’s heart as he steps beyond that sliding door. Nathaniel goes on to personalize the city through a diction of awe. Everything below him is “brilliant” and “twinkling” and “spangled” (7). Even the Statue of Liberty arrives as a familiar “she,” animated and rendered personally accountable for shepherding Nathaniel’s immigrant parents to safe harbor in America. This is Nathaniel’s city because his cards lined up just so; we look out over the rim of the balcony with him like “over the rim of a gigantic class of champagne” (7).

The story poises us then in this moment of anticipation, leaving us peering breathless over the terrace, waiting. In a story that opens and closes like an accordion, this accidental foothold into the city and into the narrative makes us question our point-of-view. It makes us look closer while we can. The resulting point of view, constantly shape-shifting, is one of privilege, but also of uncertainty, like a party we aren’t certain we should have been invited to. This duality shapes the ethos of the story and sets us up for what is it come.

Bracing for the tragic events of September 11th, Eisenberg paints the frame through which the planes crashed and the buildings burned through the incongruous reference point of Nathaniel’s point-of-view. It is important that the story elaborates so much attention to the lush details of the “glittering,” “dancing,” cityscape because in a narrative that hums around September Eleventh, Eisenberg continuously brings us back to our stance of assumed clairvoyance. There’s the Empire State Building!, we point-out with Nathaniel; there are the bridges and the buildings! How much we can see! If we could see everything, we must ask retrospectively, how did we not see it coming. This glamorous perch onto the city materializes our collective pause of the narrative; we keep circling back to that moment before it happened, to that fated frame of blue sky, when we thought we could see everything.

This balcony signals the story’s relentless push outwards. Only a handful of sentences serve to delineate the apartment’s interior. The description of the loft’s indoor appointments is barren to the point of abstraction. It is a “jungle” of “rubber” and “chrome” and “leather” (6). The very barrenness of the description invites readers to fill in the gaps with our own assumptions. Ironically, we are quite literally given materials: rubber, chrome, leather. We are instructed to construct, to work with those materials and build out of our imaginations a setting. This sparse materiality of the loft itself pays homage to the immateriality of the city below. “Leather” contrasts to “glowing emerald” and “chrome” to “violet hologram,” hinting at the unreality of the city, or at least our perception of it (6-7).

“And the terrace!” So we follow Nathaniel out to the balcony. It is not hard to imagine one of those turn-of-the-century French impressionist paintings of a well-to-do family clustered on the balcony, trapped in the artist’s relentlessly close point-of-view, the moment and its beckoning narrative frozen. For all the story’s exclamatory attention to the city below, what we as readers ultimately see is: Nathaniel. He faces outward, but we face him. We expect to see the city because that seems to be where the narrative wants to take us, but instead we see Nathaniel’s face cupped in the dizzying reflection of all that light. “Nathaniel stepped out onto the terrace and tears shot right up into his eyes” (7). This is his fragment of the narrative, his foothold, his “view.” What we ultimately get in this page and a half section is a frozen moment in the narrative; that same vertiginous obsession with seeing, with seeing the city before the towers fell and the view was no longer the best in New York.

The point-of-view zooms relentlessly close to Nathaniel on his balcony. We watch him see because there is ironically nothing else to look at. We look outward with Nathaniel as we look inwards, at him. This is the uncertainty at the heart of the story. We are constantly unsure where we are supposed to be looking, in the story’s circling obsession with piecing together the fragments that lead to the tragedy: at the city, or back at ourselves. Indeed, there is even something decidedly impressionistic about Eisenberg’s depiction of the city that harkens back to the spackled pastels of those well-to-do families huddling on the balcony. It is a “glowing” swirl of light, of “ruby” and “sapphire” and “topaz” (7). Nathaniel then hovers on the balcony poised between the modernist narrative of the loft’s interiors and the impressionistic haze of the city’s lights below, trapped between two époques; he is frozen between two narratives, two decidedly distinct ways of seeing.

This is a story about the view. About what we did and did not see. We are trapped there on Nathaniel’s sublet balcony, looking out and looking in, relentlessly searching for how we ended up here. It’s as though Nathaniel’s pointed inability to predict the future freezes the narrative. All we can do is come back to this moment when the city told itself in exclamation points. This section coheres what the story’s fragments build: that our lack of clairvoyance paralyzes our storytelling ability somehow. Eisenberg presents our ability to understand and see the future clearly as intrinsic to the human knack of telling a story. Without clairvoyance, we can’t possibly turn the page.

“Twilight” then, as we see it in this glittering moment of “View,” is about what we saw, instead. It’s about reading ourselves into a city as though it belongs to us -- and how quickly that view and the ownership of the story too can be taken away from us. The point-of-view is a fragile and unreliable thing – quite like an apartment we would never otherwise have been allowed to live in, if things had been different – dismantling our ownership of the narrative. We are no longer sure, like Nathaniel, just what we are looking at. We can apply every lens and still only come up with sky.