January 2013

Alison Barker

fiction

Spectacle by Susan Steinberg

In a 2011 HTML Giant interview, Susan Steinberg discusses experimental literature, a label frequently affixed to her work. "I wonder if it's too simplistic to say," she says, "that truly experimental writing has behind it a writer who wishes to conduct actual experiments." Steinberg's third book, Spectacle, does indeed feel like an actual experiment, a test kitchen of fiction in which she surgically removes the scripts of our gendered identities and tries to determine if there's a person under all of the performance. From "Spectator," the penultimate piece in the twelve-story collection:

I was just a girl and blank happened once; and blank happened twice; and blank was said; and blank was felt; and blank would be dealt with eventually; and then I would know my brilliance.

In "Spectator," the narrator tells us there are holes in the script for words of your own choosing. But does it really matter what sorts of words a woman places in the blanks of this mad lib if she can't define herself outside of its gendered framework of abuse, anger, addiction, and grief? Most of these narrators say no, it doesn't. "I cannot pretend to be anything other than the result of this and that," explains one woman in "Cowboys" who is tired of performing and pretending. The first-person linked stories in Spectacle conduct a sustained experiment that asks: what are you when you stop pretending?

It begins with "Superstar," narrated by a girl from Baltimore who reveals that eventually in her young adulthood she escaped from Baltimore, but not before she learns that being a girl and being a guy is a matter of performance. She steals a guy's car stereo out of anger over being jilted and the desire to "own him." She learns early in life that the expectations of a girl include waiting to be saved by a guy, and knowing how to get guys to want her is a way of maintaining one's power, and, predictably, "... the right choice was to be a guy."  

"Superstar" and the next four stories could be the foundational recipes of what it means to be a girl, what it means for these narrators to fall in love -- they crash into men; they do not create lives with men -- in fact, they literally fall into men and destroy the surrounding environment when they do so, because being a spectacle is part of these women's desire and power, as learned in youth. The men who these narrators "should" desire -- small handed, neatly dressed, thirty-somethings -- like to hike, and admire nature. But largely, the narrators in Spectacle cannot and will not do this. They need a reaction from their surroundings in order to feel like they are alive.

When you are a girl who crashes into things, the troubling thing about telling your story is that you have to rely on metaphors and clichés that exist fully outside of you. Birds aren't symbols for anything, maintains one narrator, because "nothing in trees wants to know what goes on in rooms." Birds, who "stab their faces at the cold, hard ground," are "fucked up just like us." Why can't a person come up with her own truth, she seems to be asking, with a language deeply rooted in her own experience?

The language of Spectacle consists of recurring events like a plane crash that kills a female friend, drunken evenings at Club Midnite, one night stands, childhood emotional abuse, fender benders, drunken petty theft, and unnamed characters like "brother," "father," "mechanic," and "guy." The stories read like thematically connected recipes, each with similar narrators stirring specific sets of traumatic life ingredients. In stories five and seven, "Signifier" and "Universe," birds appear and reappear; in stories four and nine, "Supernova" and "Spectacle," the same narrator grieves the death of a girl in a plane crash. In "Cowboys" and "Cowgirls" a woman takes her estranged father off of life support.

The narrators are very aware of how their stories of abuse, adultery, addiction, and violence sound to the outside world; they know they will be called "damaged" and "slut" and "victim." "I think this is the climax," says one narrator, after stealing a car stereo. And later, another stops between a funeral service and a plane crash to alert us: "... this was the shift, if you're looking for one." So how are they to tell true, painful stories without falling into linear narratives that someone else has written, and without objectifying themselves? They are detached from their bodies. They talk about pushing themselves into and out of places, of hurling themselves, of seeing themselves as ghosts from across the room. Their power in sexual relations relies on a surefire formula in which they "push something down, push something else out." Amidst all of this pushing necessary to survive sexual roles, where is the self? "I was in love with myself some nights," says a woman narrator in "Cowgirl," "but there were often too many men in the picture."

Like Djuna Barnes's meditative Nightwood, the envisioned world of characters in Spectacle is a psychological one, its terrain shaped syntactically. A narrator tells you that a guy has a rib cage that she kicks, but not the look on his face on impact; the father's shirt looks wrong against the sky as he sits and waits for his kids to finish carnival rides, his small attempt to restore their innocence, but the color of his shirt and the shape of his bulk are not specified. Steinberg's descriptions echo Barnes's prerogative that "an image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties."

There is a lot of uncertainty among these narrators -- mostly about how to escape from feeling trapped and frustrated with stories of their pasts. Yet Steinberg creates assured voices in these women. She does this by repeating the very images and events that the women warn you not to take too seriously.

In a story about me and guys, there is only a circling around.

And in a story about a story.

In a story about the father.

Mine taught me all the wrong things.

Mine taught me how to be that girl.

Mine taught me how to be that guy.

...

As you get drunker and drunker on Steinberg's quiet, rhythmic prose, you have to negotiate these messy, gendered, and punishing rules she -- and we -- use to define ourselves and how we interact with the world. Sometimes a narrator will consider filling in the blanks with any words she chooses, but then she resists, concluding that even adjectives don't have a place here in her story. "There is just the endless dialogue between one's own soft brain and one's own soft brain," says the woman in "Universe" who is tempted to read the appearance of doves as a sign before her trip to an abortion clinic. These women, for the most part, have decided that once you stop performing and stop putting yourself through the expectations of victimhood and desire, you become "permanently confused." There is no solution to permanent confusion; the experiments are still being conducted.

And yet, ensconced in the world of Spectacle are gorgeous moments of peace amidst the confusion, which reveals potential for one to be, as one narrator calls it, "fluent in one's insides." In "Supernova" a woman lies back in the snow and watches the moon move across the sky, and experiences a moment of wonder in the midst of grief. She notices for the first time that the moon moves. "And I hadn't known that one could watch it move," she says. After that lovely revelation, she starts to tell a painful story from her past and decides against it, and instead repeats to herself comforting sayings that have no doubt been told to her: "You're fine" and "It's not your fault."

The stories take time, and encourage you to slow down and listen to what these characters are telling you not to deduce from their painful life stories, even though what you decide to take away from them may not transcend your own soft brain talking to your own soft brain. In the 2011 interview, Steinberg says that "too often the result [of experimental fiction] is a series of failed experiments, which, in my opinion, is more satisfying than successfully following a formula." These experiments are time-consuming, risky talks with one's own soft brain, and together they argue for a concerted effort to get to know yourself and how external narratives define you.

Once, after a particularly painful breakup, a friend wrote me this fortifying sentiment: "Your heart has permanent reservations for one, and that person is you." I repeat it here because in Spectacle, Steinberg demonstrates what effort this permanent reservation requires, and that we owe it to ourselves to conduct the messy investigations into our learned performances. Once you finish this collection, you'll be drawn back to one or more of its ardent queries. With Spectacle, Susan Steinberg will convince you that no conversations are more worthwhile than the ones you have with your own soft brain.

Spectacle by Susan Steinberg
Graywolf
ISBN: 978-1555976316
160 pages