The End of Free Love by Susan Steinberg
I can still hear Susan Steinberg reading the story "Life" from her debut short story collection The End of Free Love at Baltimoreís Ottobar this winter:
just me and him driving, just the road and road signs, just broken white lines on the road, just the headlights nearing, then past, then dark, just the radio hum, a song, what was it, just a song from before, just his untucked shirt, his coat on the seat, just my lipstick rising up and up, just my lipstick pressing to my lips in the dark, my: do you like it, his: do I what,
Steinberg cadenced the sensually dark words with urgency and the story beat through the room. All of the stories in the collection should be heard from the authorís voice. If you donít have access to Steinberg for a reading, you can still hear the rhythm in the writing by reading them aloud, even if you donít do them justice (I didnít.)
The experimental hybridizations of prose and verse that make up the collection read like long prose poems. Steinberg sometimes focuses more on style and form than on plot and traditional character development, but in the best of the collection, she nails both. In the title story, adolescents engage in Ďlockingí -- their made up word for getting loaded by drinking overdoses of cough syrup. The characters reveal themselves and their sub-subculture as they move through their high Ė here we get the whole story. The subject matter is ideal for Steinbergís sound. Thatís not to say that her stories are all like being high on cough medicine, but that her hypnotic voice is well utilized in this piece, the strongest in the collection.
Another especially bright point in the collection, "Life", is the story I heard Steinberg read. On reread, itís still a knockout because again, the sound of the story is so good and so appropriate to the subject of the story -- a young woman seducing the man driving her home after a party. The sexuality of the story matches equally with the sensuous writing.
"Nothing", about an adolescent boy with a love of comic books who keeps a list of the people he hates, also works especially well. Repetition and short, clipped sentences build tension around the confrontation of the boyís parents and a therapist over the list. The storyís light on plot and lacks the conventions of the traditional Short Story, but fits perfectly here and carries real emotional weight despite the unfamiliar style because the characterization shows so clearly through the style.
The collection works so well because the characters so strongly emerge out of the poetry of Steinbergís writing. The experimental label potentially turns readers away because of the usual association between experimental writing with difficult, obscure writing, but thatís not the case here -- although the stories are challenging, they are populated with real people.
Experimental, ambitious writing can be risky, but taking chances makes a collection like this worthwhile. With any experiment, however, there are going to be things that work well and things that donít. For example, the one-long-paragraph story "Standstill" was a bit tedious. The collection could have benefited, too, from more stylistic variation, as in stories like "Isla", told in short, numbered paragraphs, or the short, dated entries of "Forward". The stories that work really well, like "The End of Free Love" and "Life" work really well, but when a story doesnít have the same impact, the reading at times became laborious. Fortunately, the many heights in the collection more than compensate for the few dips.
In a short story, readers often demand a clear, concrete path. In The End of Free Love, Steinberg freed herself somewhat from this obligation, but occasionally she swerves a little too far off the road. Thereís nothing that absolutely doesnít work, only times when a story or stylistic choice didnít quite stand up to the rest of the collection. The writingís so interesting, though, that when I encountered something puzzling or unclear, I reminded myself to think of the poetic side of the hybrid form. Billy Collins advises not to Ďtie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of ití in his poem "Introduction to Poetry" and thatís good advice to remember while reading The End of Free Love. The stories donít always tell you their message in clear terms, but thatís okay. Sometimes all you need to do is listen.The End of Free Love by Susan Steinberg