Twelve Hard Slaps to the Face: Susan Steinberg's 'Spectacle'
These thematically interconnected stories make for a stylish, thrilling ride.
Length: 139 pages
Author: Susan Steinberg
Release date: 2012-01-08
What a terrific little book this is. The deceptively slender Spectacle is Susan Steinberg's third book of stories (following 2003's The End of Free Love and 2006's Hydroplanes), and it's the first of hers that I have read. I say "deceptively slender" because, despite its relatively short length and quick running time, there's plenty packed into these short, sharp shocks. Steinberg's uniqueness is such that her singular storytelling poise and voice is immediately recognizable.
There are 12 stories here, each denoted with a one-word title that pairs up with another title: "Superstar" and "Supernova", "Spectator" and "Spectacle", "Universe" and "Universal" and so on. This is the reader's first intimation that there is a clever and critical mind at work here, and that these stories are not merely a sequence of unconnected vignettes but are, in fact, pieces of a larger mosaic—stories whose themes resonate off of each other, sometimes repeating plot elements, as well. Stitching them together is the fragile persona of a first-person narrator—young, female, nameless—who seems to be suffering from a significant degree of post-traumatic angst.
All this might be insufferable in the hands of a more self-indulgent writer, but happily for all of us, Steinberg is the opposite of that. She ruthlessly carves her stories down to the bone, leaving out not only lengthy description but just about any description at all, along with, you know, major plot elements, character names, stuff like that. What is left are the hints of large events that have had significant consequences: outlines in chalk, so to speak, which the reader is left to fill in as best s/he can.
What is also left is the uncertain voice of the narrator, who seems barely able to formulate a narrative sequence, even as she takes the reader into confidence. From the opening of "Cowboys":
"There are some who say I did not kill my father.
Not technically I mean.
But the ones who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me.
They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed.
What I mean is they cannot have sex with a woman who carries, though all women carry, an unbearable weight.
So they mix me another drink, they laugh, they say, You did not kill your father.”
The repetition here ("did not kill… did not kill… did not kill… cannot have sex… cannot have sex… did not kill") is typically Steinbergian. Every story uses the technique to some degree, resulting in a cadence that is as musically lulling as it emotionally fraught.
Also typical is her introduction of a huge looming question ("Huh? You killed your father?") which is immediately shunted off to the side as the narrator makes a quick left turn into some other idea ("These boys all want to have sex with me"). With little conventional narration to cushion the blow, so to speak, the reader is left gasping—or at least blinking rapidly—in an attempt to keep up with developments.
Some stories take these stylistic strategies to an extreme, eschewing all paragraph breaks and punctuation apart from semicolons, utilizing the rhythms of the sentences to convey emotional impact. In this way, the stories resemble poems or even songs as much as anything else. "Underfed", "Cowgirl" and "Spectator" each consist of a single unresolved sentence, a series of independent and dependent clauses strung together with semicolons. Over time, their repetitious phrasings begin to act as punctuation themselves, as periods or commas that allow the reader to pause in between the absorption of finely-nuanced packets of information:
"…it was never just, I need you; it was never just, Let's have a good time; it was the doctor saying, I need you to pull the plug; it was never that; it was softer than that; it was more like, I need you to do the right thing; it was more like, Your father would want it this way; it was me not knowing what he would want; it was no one knowing what anyone else would ever want;… it was the doctor saying, This isn't funny; it was the doctor saying, This isn't life; it was the doctor saying, Trust me; it was hard to trust a person I couldn't see; it was hard to trust a person I could;…"
As these excerpts suggest, this book isn't a bucket of laughs. There were probably some moments of grim humor or wryness, but frankly it's tough to call them to mind. The themes here are pretty dark: loss and disillusionment, heartache and abandonment. Any number of missing and presumably dead parents hover in the background. There are plane crashes and drunk driving and plenty of just plain bad judgment.
Even the sex is all kind of, y'know, joyless. Everything is related in a kind of dull-eyed diction that's the opposite of melodramatic (what is the opposite of melodramatic, anyway? Matter-of-fact? But this isn't exactly that, either.)
But don't let the seriousness scare you off. This is, to be sure, unconventional storytelling—at times it veers into poetry, or even chant—but is imbued with such rhythmic verve and narrative momentum that its effect veers between the hypnotic and the narcotic. It's great stuff, in other words. You should read it, and you should tell your friends to read it, too.