Susan Steinberg’s new fiction collection, SPECTACLE (Graywolf), is a series of linked and formally-inventive short stories told by female narrators who are dealing with catastrophic as well as domestic tragedies.
The narrators of a seemingly singular history convey the stories, but are not (Steinberg says) the same narrator—or at least they weren’t written, if I understand Steinberg, as a continuous narrator. So, in this book the same events in two stories can be changed depending on which unnamed narrator—of roughly the same age, build, hair color, and city of origin as Steinberg—is narrating the SPECTACLE. This structure creates a narrative that overlaps, readdresses, carries over pain and learned approaches, and anxiety—the consummate whole getting higher in fever pitch until disaster and ultimately catharsis are reached.
SPECTACLE is an apt title—because the events of the world, the spectacles, and conflicts make narrators who are strong and clever and aware, unable to escape the pressures that build around them and at times the pressures that fall from above. Steinberg’s narrators are powerful, seductive, wounded, and aware of their roles, their performance of gender, identity, and “self.” They are tough.
SPECTACLE has been praised by the New Yorker, nominated for the year’s O’Connor Prize, and reviewed at Bookslut, Publishers Weekly (starred review), SF Chronicle, and at no shortage of other places where “experimental fiction” is most often passed over, proscribed, verboten!
Why is this book getting unvarying attention? Of course it is many things, none so much I might suggest as important as voice—replete with sex, confession, revelation, and genuine risk.
While Steinberg is not telling the factual truth in these stories, she is doing something crafted with such risqué confession that readers take her stories as factual (I admit I did. Even though I knew “better.” Even though she was my first writing teacher and taught me that fiction is fiction). Readers conflate Steinberg with her narrator(s)—and reading this book you see instantly that this is a position of danger for any writer. Because maybe you can’t make this crazy up. Because there’s risk in really talking about one’s gender. Because it isn’t crazy; it’s genius. It’s truth. These speakers are so solipsistic they lose identity, become universal in their extreme isolation and anxiety—they retain awareness and becoming weaponized in awareness of gender.
This collection can be read as an experimental novel composed of many fictions forming an aggregate and rupturing whole. Here is one you cannot look away from, which implicates the minds and bodies of the readers, which reveals what has remained taboo far too long. These stories are not political, not ideological—they are honest in such a way as to make them threatening and unnerving and difficult to talk about.
LBG: Do you mind if we start with something simple, from right off the cover of your book?
S.M.S: I don’t mind.
LBG: Okay. On the back of the book is this synopsis: “SPECTACLE bears witness to alarming and strange incidents: carnival rides and plane crashes, affairs…and amateur porn, vandalism and petty theft. In these stories, wounded women stand at the edge of disaster and risk it all to speak their sharpest secrets.”
LGB: Is this how you see the book? Is that what the book bears witness to—to strange incidents and wounded women at the edge of disaster? Speaking their sharpest secrets?
S.M.S: The book does contain these specific things: affairs, amateur porn, vandalism, planes crashes, and theft. The book also contains the abstractions you mention: secrets and disaster. But had I written the copy, it likely would have mentioned more technical aspects of the book: semi-colons, fragments, one-sentence paragraphs. I tend to think more about the “how” than the “what” when asked what my work is about. But it’s the back of a book. I think readers want the what.
But I don’t think the incidents I write are strange. Do you?
Continue reading “Luke Goebel interviews Susan Steinberg”