Saturday, June 8, 2013

More Messed Up Than You Will Ever Be: Susan Steinberg's "Spectacle"

Back in January, a long New York Times profile made the statement that George Saunders's Tenth of December was the best book of 2013, a welcome retort to the needless worrying over whether or not the short story was dead. I'm not at all comparing or ranking different artists, but another story collection has eclipsed the wonderful Saunders book, and it happened to be published in that same month. Saunders is almost unsettling in his talent, creating a wide array of creative scenarios that form a sort of Venn diagram of genres and fantastical plots. Susan Steinberg's Spectacle, published by Graywolf Press, is on an entirely different level. Like any good artist, she's unafraid to lead readers into some uncomfortable terrain, with emotional honesty sometimes bordering on brutal. She plays with punctuation and forms like a poet (as much as I hate to say this). I'm running dangerously close to messy superlatives, but Steinberg's work is the best story collection I've read this year. In her hands, the experimental prose is essential, not as a gimmick, but as a way to highlight a variety of topics. The women in her stories are fearless, even when they are afraid. The reader is sometimes put in an awkward position, but I was so grateful to have my expectations upended.

The narrators are nameless women, sharing stories of choices, family, sex, dating, and mistakes. None of them put on any airs or minimize their mistakes or the mistakes of the people with whom they interact. The opening story, "Superstar," begins with a stolen radio, then branches out into various interactions and notions of identity. This opener is like a lot of the pieces within Spectacle: Steinberg ends up going in so many different directions, but always remains grounded to her characters. Even when the reader is far away from where he or she started, there aren't any distractions, but only layers of complex lives.

"Animals would run to their dark holes filled with leaves.
I'm just saying.
Would I own you.
Do you think I would.
I'm just saying something.
I'm just saying I'm kind of a whore.
Which is not to say don't like me.
Because I'm also kind of sweet.
Which is just to say.
The world should no longer be about wanting and wanting the way it was when I was younger and dumber, drawing in my bed, drawing some asshole's name on my hand, and hearts.
But here we all are.
Meaning here I am wanting again.
The utter inconvenience of what I am.
The utter inconvenience of it all.
But I was just so fucking powerful that night.
I was in the backseat of my car that night.
I had a stolen stereo on my lap.
I was feeling like a superstar.
The kids up front were singing again (Steinberg 10)."

In 2011, Steinberg was interviewed by Christopher Higgs for HTML Giant, and in the very first question, she explained her views on experimental literature. One of her statements is a great introduction to "Underfed," the second story in Spectacle: "I’m finding that a lot of writing is categorized as experimental simply because it looks different on the page. Too often, this work, while embracing a certain textural playfulness, still reads as either conventional or self-indulgent. I think that truly experimental writing embraces innovation, a relationship of form to content, a consideration of the real possibilities of the text; it’s not just pyrotechnics, opacity, an attempt to shock, or a formulaic display of what certain writers and readers think experimental writing is supposed to seem. I wonder if it’s too simplistic to say that truly experimental writing has behind it a writer who wishes to conduct actual experiments."

"Underfed" is a story told through rapid-fire sentences, with the only punctuation being semicolons and colons dividing them. This makes the story visually jarring at first, and would likely be classified by most people as "experimental." However, it fits into Steinberg's assessments: it embraces innovation, and the point of the text is to tell a story, not to dazzle with unexpected punctuation. It forces the reader to pay close attention, and after awhile, the form is secondary to the story being told. Like the others, are are a wealth of thoughts and observations to take in.

"I said, I'm incapable of falling for you; I said, I'm incapable of falling in love; I'm a wreck, I said; I need another wreck, I said; It's my father, I said, of course; It's my mother, I said, of course; I turned down the radio; I said, Did you hear me; he kept on driving; I turned up the radio; I will wreck you, I said; I swear, I said; I was talking at the radio; I was talking at the heat vent; I was talking at my dirty knees; I'd hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn't adverse to dirt; I was adverse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star: like the pressure of having to to be so fucking nice: like the pressure of having to be a certain type of guy when I was just a certain type of girl; (Steinberg 17)."

When Steinberg writes stories that come close to "standard narrative" (which is not to imply that the more experimental pieces are 'nonstandard'), there is still work to be done by the reader. Some of the actions are implied as possible lies or interpretations of the truth, and quite a few of the minor characters are just as flawed as the narrators. The reader has to decipher whether or not the stories being told are truthful, lies, or interpretations. The stories are vivid. "Supernova" is a dizzying mix of plane crash visions and a woman's icy relationship with her father. Her memories are hazy, and she even comes out and explains that some of the details might not be real. However, this doesn't detract from the story. The reader isn't let down, since it wasn't building to any concrete climax or revelation. We know the narrator is troubled, and her reflections have the atmosphere of truth-telling, even if the details are sketchy.

"This story is not about me. As it turns out, I'm just a detail. Like the sky. Like the snow. Like the car you think was real. Or the bus you think was real. Or the plane you think was real. Or the premonition that, you should know, was not.

It wasn't technically a crash. It was technically an explosion. It was technically a lot of things. Like the end of things. Not of everything. Not to everyone.

And I would hear its name each day for the rest of my life. Every day from that point on. Fucking stupid as that is.

I stared across the table at my father. I asked again whose fault it was. My father tried not to look at me. He said, Not mine. And I said, I know. I said, But whose. And he said, Not mine. He said, Not mine. He lifted up his empty glass. He threw the glass at the wall. The glass shattered. Dinner was over. The holiday over. It was snowing again. The roads were a mess. I put on my new coat. I walked to the door. Over my dead body, my father said. Murder, he said. The roads were a wreck. But I had new tires (Steinberg 46)."

I'm not sure if these cited passages are conveying just how complex these stories are, and not just in the forms and sentence structures. The family and personal relationships are fraught with double meanings, love and hate, and confusion. Also, Spectacle can be read as a brilliant example of feminist fiction. Steinberg's women are sometimes broken and seriously flawed, but they lash out at injustices and sleights. Even flawed, they're some of the strongest women in fiction. Even without names or stylistic similarities, I was constantly reminded of some of the female narrators in Lindsay Hunter's fiction. The overall message is that everyone's life has some form of complication, some more extreme than others, and what's important is how one deals with it. Steinberg goes back and forth between the present time and the past memories, and even in the most "casual" observations, the emotions are intensely tangible.

"When I asked if I could study abroad, my father said, Go.
He said, Get lost.
But I stood there thinking he'd change his mind.
Because I knew I couldn't go.
Because I couldn't leave my father.
I mean I couldn't leave him lying there.
He was more broken than you could ever be.
More messed up than you will ever be.
But there was a time he was all right.
I was a kid, and he took me on a trip.
He took me to the beach.
It was the only trip we ever took.
Days, I swam in the water.
My father sat on the sand.
And on our last day, we watched a sunset.
And my father looked out at the water.
And he said, What if all the earth's water were drained.
And at first I laughed.
But then I thought.
And then I thought (Steinberg 104-105)."

Like virtually everyone else who has read Spectacle, I'm now a Susan Steinberg follower. I can't wait to get my hands on her previous collections, and even if they happen to pale in comparison, they won't diminish my admiration and awe. For a writer to seamlessly blend such a variety of forms and never lose track of the basics of storytelling is hard to do, and carrying this on throughout an entire collection, with no throwaway or "lesser" pieces, is astounding. Again, this review simply doesn't do justice to Steinberg's emotions and imagery. Spectacle demands to be read and appreciated, and all I can do is hope that this steers someone toward her fiction. With all due respect to George Saunders and anyone else with a story collection published in 2013, this book does things that very few writers can match. As much as I fretted about needless superlatives in my introduction, I'm okay with coming across breathless and wide-eyed. While I've read a few amazing story collections this year, Spectacle dug up some emotions and feelings I didn't know I had.

Work Cited:
Steinberg, Susan. Spectacle: Stories. Copyright 2013 by Susan Steinberg.

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