The End of Free Cough Syrup
She felt no contempt, she said, for her fellow artists who counted themselves realists, in fact she envied them, they seemed so young, so untouched, there was something childlike and belligerent in their art.
Joyce Carol Oates, Solstice
In my favorite writing workshop at the University of Minnesota, the professor, Valerie Miner, prohibited students from saying anything while their own stories were being discussed. On the first day of class, Miner issued a list of rules like bug spray—as a result, some students immediately dropped the course, while others resisted and became serious pests.
The most persistent rule-breakers wrote “experimental” fiction. For many students, it seemed the same lack of discipline and maturity that drove them to shun classroom rules also shaped their experimental (rule-breaking) fiction, which Miner did not try to regulate. After the experimentalists could roll their eyes no more at what they considered gross misreadings of their work, they would burst forth with quick, angry disclaimers. While the comments were often arrogant or pretentious (“I didn’t FORGET to use punctuation—I’m trying to show you a new way of reading”), they occasionally approached legitimacy: “My writing just seems unclear because it accurately reflects my characters’ interior realities,” and “I mix dialogue and narrative together to slow you down and force a more careful interpretation.”
And sometimes the objections were right on target (in which case, they usually were offered by the professor.) I was always amazed by how clearly Miner could see into her students’ manuscripts. At a glance, she could tell the real thing from gratuitous experimentalism, and with a single comment, Miner could deflect unfair or irrelevant criticism from a story.
Thus, she cleared the way not only for a constructive reading of the manuscript under review, but also for an appreciation of experimental or innovative forms of writing in general (the workshop was called “Forms of Fiction”). Without the experience the course provided, I wouldn’t attempt to write about the subject of this article: Susan Steinberg’s collection of stories, The End of Free Love.
The title story is perhaps the most accessible of all eighteen pieces. In the spring, a teenaged boy and girl take a “three hour bus to the ocean” where they get stoned off of cough syrup. The sensation, they say, is like “being cold your whole life and a blanket appears.” It’s significant that the blanket merely “appears,” as if to mock their needs rather than fulfill them. The curtailed image contradicts the profound experiences the kids claim to have.
The narrators (who use the royal “we” throughout the story) frequently describe the drug’s disassociative effects and reduce the sensation to one word: “locking.” They become irate when other kids, who merely take the “okayed dosage,” use their word: “They call it locking when they’re fakers walking in a zombie way.” Even worse, the fakers steal cough syrup, while the narrators “always pay” and are therefore “the truest thing.” The story is their manifesto, whose only workable policy calls for an end to free cough syrup.
The narrators also denounce the 60s “life-way”—not “lifestyle.” They feel the need to stake a claim to that word too, but not explicitly; they don’t prattle on about it like they do about “locking.” If you dislike these kids as much as I do by this point, the “life-way” remark might get under your skin. I should also mention that the story does not reveal that a common term already exists for getting high off of large doses of cough syrup—it’s called “tussing,” named after the generic cough syrup Tussin DM. This nonfictional detail becomes relevant, perhaps, in light of the narrators’ preoccupation with coining words and claiming authenticity.
Because they are the “truest thing,” the narrators mark “the end of free love,” which suggests they are the vanguard of a new generation. The soaring rhetoric and constant self-mythologizing rankles, but the joyless sound of the phrase ultimately rings true, whether the kids mean it that way or not. By the end of the story, the title might sound earnest, rather than ironic, even though the kids are fakers themselves.
Just because the narrators are annoying does not mean the story is flawed. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes close to being that which he despises most, a “phony,” but the irony adds to the richness of the story. The same must be said for “The End of Free Love,” but the cough syrup junkies are so obviously a sham, you come close to dismissing them completely, rather than having the kind of conflicting emotions that make for great literature. Throughout the collection, Steinberg tests limits—with her characters and with her formal techniques.
When you finish the tough task of reading one of Steinberg’s stories, you can look forward to the more pleasurable experience of thinking and wondering about it. I tried to rush through the first step to get on with the second, but obviously it didn’t work. It’s a constant temptation, though. The stories’ packaging—the lists, short paragraphs, long streams of consciousness, and sentences that somehow move at a high speed—invite you to consume them rapidly. But what you think is bubble gum often turns out to be something tougher and less palatable. One of the common writing workshop disclaimers mentioned above accurately describes Steinberg’s stories: they slow you down and force a more careful interpretation.
Conceptual fiction is often about itself ultimately, and The End of Free Love is no exception. The publisher makes no secret of this: the book’s cover states that Steinberg’s writing “is as much about form as it is content.” For many writers of conceptual fiction, the self-referential tendency can easily turn into self-indulgence. Another common disclaimer that comes up in writing workshops, when somebody questions the realism of a scene, is that the story creates its own reality. The writer might say, for example, “So what if my scuba diving scene is full of technical errors? It’s really a metaphor for the writing process, for the difference between shallow and deep writing, and (here comes another common disclaimer) the fact that you dwell on superficial errors only shows that you’re not open to the possibilities of my prose.”
That sounds like something the cough syrup junkies would say. Actually, casting the kids as avant-garde artists offers a rich interpretation¾in which case the “fakers” would be gratuitous experimentalists and “locking” a metaphor for the artistic process. Much of Steinberg’s fiction operates best as allegory; her stories seem to express what the quote at the top of this article says about “realists.” Their art is “childlike and belligerent” with its rudimentary meaning-making abilities, compared to Steinberg’s high art. Fortunately, however, Steinberg’s fiction—especially the title story—doesn’t rely on an allegorical reading. As unsophisticated as it might sound, I prefer to think of the protagonists as real kids.
The stories themselves are rich—and demanding—enough to force you to read them simultaneously as fiction and poetry. The strongest piece in the collection, “Isla,” could be read as a retelling of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Oysters.” In both pieces, a creepy, incestuous aura hangs over a teenage girl and her father as they eat at a restaurant. The fathers’ personalities are polar opposite: in “Oysters,” the father is ominously silent, and in “Isla” he does all the talking. His staccato utterances are numbered, from one to 134, as if to quantify the damage he’s inflicting on his daughter.
Most of the stories explore damaged minds. In “Nothing,” we inhabit an adolescent boy’s subconscious as he sits in a circle with his parents and possibly a therapist. Reminiscent of the Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold, the narrator has created a list of people and things he dislikes—with a “violent title,” according to a parent.
The narrator’s thoughts are presented in parenthesis, neatly separated from the narration and exterior dialogue—however, the exterior information is infrequent and unreliable. He doesn’t care much about things happening outside his mind, and his interior landscape is full of confusion, disappointment, and hostility. Like the Columbine killers, the petty torments the narrator receives from his peers trigger grand visions of revenge: “I would go, poof! And the females disappear,” and “The females shake in circles. Oh horrible bloody messes!”
He borrows his modus operandi from comic books—the Columbine killers got theirs from the video game “Doom.” After a few minutes in the narrator’s head, it’s easy to imagine a shotgun in his gym bag and a pipe bomb in his closet. The story provides a harrowing glimpse into a troubled and possibly antisocial mind.
The stories are arranged thoughtfully. As much as they jump all over stylistically, they progress thematically from troubled adolescence toward jaded adulthood, with some exceptions. While the book is full of different voices, it gives an impression of a single lifespan. Steinberg’s publisher, the Fiction Collective Two (FC2), seems to prefer books that provide a portrait of a generation. As one of FC2’s founders, Ronald Sukenick, sought to mark the end of a generation with his book 98.6, so does Susan Steinberg with The End of Free Love.