Susan Steinberg, Spectacle, Graywolf Press, 2013
"It is the genius of this artist to make of her bondage a fabulous abode where all the rooms she cannot escape from are made lavish with the spectacle of the family romance." Gordon Lish wrote this blurb on the back of Diane Williams' first book, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate, which was published by Grove Press in 1990.
Perhaps it is odd to start a review of Susan Steinberg's third book, Spectacle, published by Graywolf Press in January of this year, with a reference to two other authors who did nothing so quotidian as "pave the way" for her particular brand of minimalist disaffection, but only because neither Lish nor Williams could be said to pave—as in smooth, as in facilitate ease of travel—anything. Rather, even in an editorial context, both authors fracture. Expectations, narrative flow. Rather, both subvert.
It might be better to say, as others have said of Steinberg's uniquely 21st century voice, "More and better than Stein" (D.A. Powell), or that she is writing in "the voice of...women neglected, abused, stifled, and heartbroken" (from a review by Miranda Morgan on Zyzzyva.org) or, even, as Steinberg herself says in an interview with Andrew Ervin at Hobart, "There's a lot of graffiti I like, but this is my most recent favorite. A few weeks ago, I had parked my bike outside a bookstore, and walking toward it, I saw that someone had painted in black "I Like You" on the sidewalk in front of it. It was just so average and understated and casual. Something about its lack of enthusiasm appealed to me. It wasn't love. It wasn't spray painted across a wall in red. But, still, it wasn't passionless."
Those are all appropriate ways of talking about the startling spiral that is the twelve stories that make up Spectacle. Steinberg is like Stein in that her reiterations feel iterative. There are stories in this collection that twin——"Cowboys" and "Cowgirls" both of which detail the decision to take a father off life support; "Supernova" and the title story, "Spectacle," which center around the death of a friend in a plane crash and both start with the line "When the plane crashed, I was all messed up;" "Signifier" and "Signified" in which "Words are about desire and desire is about..." Performance it seems, the performance of gender roles, or sex, or the rituals of the "predestined life," in which one of the ingredients is a man and the other is a child, but fundamentally, primarily, thrillingly linguistic performance in which the author does what she wants which becomes, in a very Stein-like alchemy, what the story must do, no matter how strange, no matter how disjointed.
Thus, even when we've been there many times before in the collection—Club Midnight where the speaker (the same speaker for each of the twelve stories) went "when it got too late. Or there was no where else to go," Baltimore: burned out and broken, storms which continuously fall but never really accumulate—our arrival into the locale and language of the story seems both simultaneous and new. "A little monkey goes like a donkey, that means to say, that means to say..." does not, in fact, mean anything without the accumulated sound context of the rest of Stein's tender buttons, all of which deconstruct meaning with the same ruthlessness. At the end of "Signifier," Steinberg, in a opening phrase she employs throughout the book says,
And I don't know where my father went.
I mean he died, of course.
I mean nobody knows where he went, of course.
and what she means is a clarifying precision that often deconstructs or refutes the sentence that has come before, but never deconstructs the meaning of the sentence. So, no, she is not Stein. But yes, like Stein, the project is to experiment—a linguistic scientific method that replicates in order to prove, to precisely measure, to quantify even as it underscores its total disinterest in qualification. Twelve stories that are also one story. Twelve stories that are completely different.
And no, it is not inaccurate to evoke the "voice of women," however grating one might find that term—(as if women had one particular kind of voice in common as they do one particular kind of body part; as if women who did not speak with that particular voice were, implicitly, something other than women; as if women who happened to be victims of abuse, stiflement, heartbreak had no voice to speak from other than the one generated by their personal tragedies). Nevertheless, there is in these stories the voice of a woman who is interested in neglect, abuse, the implicit constraint of stifling heteronormative gender roles, heartbreak in so many of its guises. She speaks in a singular voice—declarative and withholding, confessional and ferociously resistant to judgment. It is as comfortable evoking the reader's capacity to judge ("Look: I want to make a public confession; I want an interrogation; I want a fitting punishment") as it is implicating the reader in its erstwhile sins, ("Desire is desire for recognition, and I was controlled by desire just like you"). It is the singular voice of a woman who summons the heartbreakers to the page not because she is interested in detailing or exploring their capacity to harm, but rather because she is interested in exploring her capacity to manage and control their harm. The neglectful father, the absent and distracted mother, "guy" who, in his many forms, is lecherous or abusive or decent but desirous of a woman-shape and not a real person: all are treated with the same flattened aspect that robs them of their power to inflict and turns them instead into objects of scrutiny, curiosity, intellect.
These are not victim stories, although neither are they redemption stories. Rather, they are exercises in transubstantiation. What happens, asks both the alchemist and the scientist, if I can make one substance become another? What happens, Steinberg is asking in Spectacle, if I transform the story, the setting, all the other characters, the climax and what comes after into nothing more (or less) than facets of the I. In other words, how can one be victimized by the world if one is the world? It is not a question she answers so much as one that she hypothesizes and then tests through the estrangement of the speaker from her subject; through the estrangement of traditional grammatical markings from their narrative usage; through the estrangement of the past from its expected place somewhere behind the present; through the estrangement of the reader from his/her customary role as observer to someone directly complicit in the action. "...I don't know what to make of you," says the speaker in the final lines of "Signifier," "How you are just like me. How you think you aren't." This kind of conflation—world for self, self for world—is even more noticeable in the story "Underthings," where the speaker, who has been hit in the face with a book by her boyfriend, reconfigures the event in so many different ways almost any narrative of abuse, victimization, fetish, or culpability is possible. When recounting the scenario to her brother, the speaker says:
And what if I was holding the book like this. And what if I was standing there like this. And what if I made a face like this. And what if I felt like a zombie. And what if I felt like an animal. And what if I felt just like a guy...
It is worthwhile to note the lack of question marks. These are not questions, not to the reader and not to the brother, but rather statements. I was standing there, I did make a face, I was a zombie, an animal, a guy...In the language of the story the speaker has such complete control that these transfigurations are not only plausible, they are taken for granted. Logically then, insofar as logic has a role in such gleeful subjectivity, if the I can simultaneously be zombie/animal/guy then zombie/animal/guy can also simultaneously be each other. A conflation that brings to bear a certain amount of critical attention to the nature of "guy" as he exists in this book, but also one that underscores the central dictate of the speaker: not "I am not harmed by these things because I am these things"; but rather "what harm comes to me in life comes only from myself." As a statement of control, framed in such authoritative, precise, bare language, that is a difficult one to beat.
So. Twelve stories that mourn disaster. Twelve stories that refuse disaster exists.
Nor is it inaccurate to listen to Steinberg herself as she says what interests her in the world is the average, the understated, the casual, but never the passionless. These stories—rife as they are with Oedipal constructions, with loss, with lack, with absence—beg for a symbolic underpinning. What to do with the birds that show up intermittently within stories only to, "stab their faces at the cold, hard ground"? What to do with the father who is dead over and over again, killed by the speaker who then says, of those who would deny her culpability, "They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed." Yet, again, this is not the project. Steinberg is not interested in the underpinnings of narrative or in creating a system of reference that would give it context, the framework of steel that Virginia Woolf says must ground the light of the butterfly's wings in any art (Is it worth finishing the phrase? "...and there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, 'Women can't paint, women can't write ...'"). Rather, what Steinberg is interested in is almost purely the act of narrating, of speaking, of being a speaker.
Though it is not imageless, Spectacle denies image, or flattens it, in favor of the voice. It refutes meaning in the same way it refutes coincidence, as in this quote from the story "Universe,"
...one now knows the universe is not in control, as one now knows the universe is not calling the shots, as one now knows that neither is there human control and neither is there fate and neither is there an explanation for what there is. There is just the endless dialogue between one's own soft brain and one's own soft brain.
The speaker is never passionless, but the passion she invokes comes from herself and is for herself. It is a stream-of-consciousness voice, a voice that conflates experience and analysis, a febrile 4am sort of voice that should be familiar to anyone who has ever, a long time ago, probably in college, taken too many amphetamines. In other words, it is a voice that cannot stop itself, that must talk. Really, the only part of the book not fully under the speaker's control.
And so, finally, twelve stories that evoke the subconscious. Twelve stories that do not admit the subconscious exists.
For all that, what I keep coming back to when I think of Susan Steinberg's Spectacle are those rooms Gordon Lish says exist in Diane William's work. The spaces we can't escape from, not ever. The spaces we are left to decorate with the spectacles that form our obsessions because there is nothing else left. There is an implicit sense of adornment, or ornament, in that particular quote that I cannot see applying to either Williams' or Steinberg's work and yet the underlying sense holds true. Here there are no doors; there are no windows. What we see is not what is happening outside while trapped in here life goes on, but rather what has replaced the outside. An almost total interiority that somehow is not formless—a cavalcade of language that makes Spectacle as unsettling as it is compelling. Its speaker's voice is as memorable for all that it says (and says and says again) as it is for what it withholds. Which might be everything. Which probably is. [SB]