Spectacle by Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press, 2013; 137 pp
Reviewed by Elise Matthews
I read a lot of books on Kindle, but some books are so good and hit me so hard that, as soon as I finish reading them, I have to go order a hard copy. Paying for a book twice sometimes feels silly, but some books are just that good. Susan Steinberg's Spectacle is one of those books.
Steinberg's prose knows that it's powerful and important, and it's not fucking around. This collection is full of stories about how confusing it can be to navigate femininity and masculinity and what lies between and overlaps. When the narrator of "Superstar" gets in a car wreck with a man, she says:
I knew I had a choice to make.
And I knew the right choice was to get out of the car.
And I knew I had another choice to make.
And I knew the right choice was to be a guy.
Steinberg shows this really raw moment in this character's life where she feels helpless as a woman and knows that her situation would be better if she were a man—not because being a man is better but because then she wouldn't have to be afraid.
All of the narrators in this collection are women, and many of them aren't likeable—don't even like themselves, really. But Steinberg pushes these characters toward a dangerous honesty, and that's what's so striking. These characters confess their darkest stories, show their worst sides, and that wins me over with each story. In "Signifier," the narrator reveals that she likes having both/and, not either/or. She likes owning things, specifically men, just because she can:
As a child, I could never make up my mind. I would want both toys. I would want both dolls. . . .
You'll end up with nothing, [my father] always said.
Or both, I always said.
If one was truly charming, one could have both.
She hikes in the woods with two men who both want her, and by the end of the story, she aptly concludes, "I would be that monster in the woods. That killer. That witch. That girl running wild, her skirt hiked to her waist." In this character, Steinberg illustrates the extreme alternative to fearing men: a predatory woman. "At some point," the narrator adds, "you become something other than girl. At some point you become confused. Then you're that from that point on." Insights like this shine through these stories as Steinberg explores these characters' selfishness, deep wounds, and gritty darkness.
In all of the stories, Steinberg shows a mastery of language and punchy, rapid-fire syntax: "It was like I had a premonition. Or I felt a reverberation. I mean I felt a crash push through my skin. . . . It was more like air pushing through. Or a song pushing through. It was more just like a ghost." There's no extra, no fluff. Steinberg even directs one narrator to say that her story is no place for adjectives. In this collection, every word counts, has a point, is meant.