Susan Steinberg, Hydroplane, Fiction Collective 2, 2006

[Review Guidelines]

The test of any book, for me, is how much I can read of it in one sitting. Not whether I can have the story completely swallow me up and hold me like an overzealous lover through the night, though I value that experience, too, which is typically the province of the novel to create a world for us and consume our time, our consciousness, to force us to turn page after page, proceeding linearly through, until we have to sleep because we have to get up to work, love, court, or other responsibilities tomorrow. That's good, yes, definitely, who doesn't want that?, but:
       What I most like is for a book to speak enough to me that I can get through no more than a story, five pages of text, maybe, before I feel like I have to break away, either from the intensity of the gaze or because I want to apply these stories to my own and let them spawn. I want a book to operate on my consciousness in such a way that it induces the sort of state that prompts my own work, drives me to put down the book and go to the keyboard because I am primed for something new. It's better if the story creates a kind of excruciating pleasure where you are enjoying its work on you, but you want to get away, you need to, and will soon, if only the spell will be broken, though you're not willing to do that mid-story, because that disrespects the mind at work on you as represented by these sentences.
       So it is with pleasure that I read Susan Steinberg's Hydroplane slowly, piecemeal, one story at a time, with significant breaks between. I recommend it to you that way, for in a lot of ways Steinberg does not seem interested in the project of the novel (or the traditional story).
       Generally this book's method is to construct the character (and by extension the world) through fragmentary first-person utterance, through the bursts and reversals of a voice trying to tell us something. For instance, the action (such as it is) in "The Garage" is narrated in 77 discrete fragments. Each is a new start, false, often jumping backwards or forwards in time, revising or revisiting some previous action or filling in a gap left from before, or modifying a previous statement:

This is really a story about our father. About how he hanged himself in the garage that day. We used to say he hung himself. But the word is hanged.

That's the whole section or strophe or whatever you want to call it. Even in this short bit we get revision, reversal, an identifying of what the story's ostensibly about, even as it is obviously about something other than this, quite possibly the difficulty of language and the workings of the mind. So the unspooling of plot isn't all that important (though there is some of the plot revealed in this way too): what's more interesting in a Steinberg story is watching the character become clearer, more defined, as she (it is always, or almost always a she, often early adult or adolescent, usually sexualized, obsessive, thinking intermittently of fucking, she as ball of intellect, dialect, and desire) tacks around a central idea watching it come together or fall apart.
       There is a downside to this method, in that the stories' shapes are not overly varied, nor are the voices always all that different from each other. I guess this creates a stylistic similarity that brings the book together, but also possibly flattens (or focuses, one could argue) its effect. And there's probably critique to be had in the constant presence of desire (fucking, fucking, fucking) and the possibility that this creates another sort of flatness in the book. But I don't see much point in critique, when my first concern here is pleasure, and there is a lot of pleasure on the sentence level, which is the first place I feel we should start to give a shit.
       Hydroplane is a more assured project than her previous book, The End of Free Love (which I also liked, and which worked in some ways like this one), and offers an intense reading experience, because of the project and her vision, her version of story. I can't say how it reads cover to cover since I found it impossible to read in that way, and besides it comes on strong enough to probably make it tough going to read more than a story or two at a time. Devotees of more straightforward types of fiction might find this difficult, though that's a lame reason to shy away from powerful fiction. The power of the voice here is dazzling, virtuoso at times, and has much to offer any sort of reader or writer.
       So think of it like this: Hydroplane as seed, sourdough starter, amino acids stewing. There is sufficient power in Steinberg's sentences, each one like a little big bang creating its own consciousness or echo, to push me or you to the keyboard. Which is a pretty big victory from my point of view. [AM]