Book Review

The female narrators in Susan Steinberg’s third short story collection, Spectacle, are direct. They confess. They repeat themselves and contradict, edging closer to an approximation of their experience. They’re not apologetic but self-aware. They reanalyze and reframe, seemingly sure of themselves, then not sure at all (then gaining strength by recognizing all they don’t know). And we readers feel privileged to be let into the shadowy space of these narrators’ minds, feeling that in the stream of contradictions, we will not be lied to. Steinberg’s narrators want to get it right, whatever that means. We trust them to do just that.

In these twelve linked stories, many of which first appeared in Conjunctions and American Short Fiction, women face moments of shame, betrayal, uncertainty, and loss: a failed pregnancy, empty drunken couplings, painful memories of neglect and abuse, and even the removal of a father from life support. And while the narratives themselves are forceful, and an undercurrent of emotion runs beneath them like a sharp hum, what makes Spectacle so striking is its achievement in form.

Three of these first-person narratives are told in long strings of phrases connected by semicolons, with each story also beginning and ending with a semicolon—essentially creating stories that never end. Most others are written line by line in one-sentence paragraphs, creating a visual presence on the page akin to poetry. In these alternative storytelling forms, scenes don’t rise and fall in traditional narrative arcs; instead there’s often a circling, a recurring thought pattern, sometimes achieved through fragments. There is tension in the dramatic events, of course, but also in each narrator’s attempt to distill them into meaning.  The form elegantly echoes the characters’ probing thought processes.

In “Universe,” for example, the protagonist comes to terms with a failed pregnancy. She grapples with the weight of it in distilled, exacting lines:

The doctor said nothing, kept his distance.

One knew what he was thinking.

One now was fluent in the doctor’s face.

One now was fluent in one’s insides.

And later in the story:

A sign on the wall said to avoid drinking liquor.

A sign on the wall said to avoid eating shark.

But one could now drink heavily.

One could now eat shark.

Using this stark form, Steinberg captures the essential, creating a strobe effect with the narrator’s solid, blunt observations that are laced with humor and irony. Her characters border on obsessive when it comes to explaining discrepancies between events and how they experienced them, the roles they feel compelled to play, especially regarding gender, and how they critique their own behavior. The stories detail these interior worlds with an awareness that earns our trust. There’s a great honesty to these confessions, as hard and bleak as some of them may be.

In the Pushcart Prize–winning “Cowgirl,” detailing a woman’s decision to remove her father from life support, Steinberg uses thought patterns similar to those in “Universe”—a rhythmic chain of insights leading directly one into another, often with repetition. But rather than listing single separate lines, Steinberg connects the (often conflicting) thoughts in one long paragraph using semicolons. The story opens like this:

; it was virtual, the killing; it was conference call, the killing; it was party line, a party; it was everyone talking at once; it was everyone talking and me in charge; it was nearing morning, almost light; it was the doctor begging me, Come on already;…

 “Cowgirl” continues in this form for about six more pages, the rhythm accumulating with an almost breathless momentum. The semicolon that ends the story signals a circularity to the character’s thinking, a recognition that these thoughts won’t end; there’s no resolution to this memory. And knowing that, seeing that the character will always struggle with this past, we are affected.

These innovative narrative forms—both the single-line paragraphs and the long strings connected by semicolons—give Steinberg’s collection an appealing texture despite the otherwise similar voices. Even the two stories told in more traditional, longer paragraphs, however—“Supernova” and “Underthings”—also create an emotional distance in which a layer of abstraction allows the narrators to first process, and then relay, their experiences. We perceive these abstractions as imperfect and so can more easily embrace the characters’ vulnerability. In this way, Steinberg invites us to experience her narrators’ very real sense of both strength and not knowing. No matter what form Steinberg employs, her stories carry weight, urgency, and a sharpness that forces us to look unflinchingly at the characters’ truths. The fact that we care about the characters at the same time is a mark of the collection’s success.

About the Reviewer

Corey Campbell's fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, the Rattling Wall, Necessary Fiction, Conte, Anderbo, and the Coachella Review, among other publications. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, Ms. Campbell lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where she teaches fiction in a prison and is completing her first collection of short stories.