SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)

Jaclyn Watterson

A Review of Spectacle

by Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press 2013
152 pages

Susan Steinberg’s new Spectacle is twofold. Reading it is like holding a mirror up to a mirror: you recognize yourself and you recognize Steinberg. And she recognizes you, especially if you happen to live in a woman’s body or know someone who does.

Sentences like, “I was not in a state of dire need; but I’d been up late thinking of dire things” (from “Underfed,” a story that begins with a semi-colon), and “The doctor said my father would be a vegetable, and upon hearing this word, I imagined a plate. I imagined vegetables on this plate” (“Cowboys”) ring with the wit and crackling intelligence anyone who has read Steinberg will associate with her. Here is the reader’s own desperation, rendered by an artist so deft we’re honored to recognize something of ourselves in her sentences.

But there is something unfamiliar here too.

These stories cannot be contained. They look in the mirror at themselves, and are reflected back, so that each story is told twice. Or each story is told infinitely. “Signifier” must also be “Signified,” “Cowboys” must reincarnate as “Cowgirl,” “Supernova” is “Spectacle” also. The reiterations are uncanny: we feel at home realizing we know the story, but shifts in form and detail reveal home is never what we imagine.

A month or so ago, an old friend emailed and asked if I had read Susan Steinberg’s new book. “I heard,” this friend said, “it’s about being a woman.” As it turns out, that bit of fanfare is true and it isn’t. Spectacle is about performing woman in a world that believes in two genders. In the story “Underthings,” the narrator says, “It was like I was trying to play a woman, and he was trying to play a man. It was like I was trying to play the victim, and he was trying to play the savior. … It was so confusing, our show. We didn’t always stick to our lines. We didn’t always know our lines.”

The pressure to perform girl or woman is central to the narrators of these stories, and there’s an insistence that yes, this problem is universal. In the story “Universal,” we read:

If I were a guy I would call this story Ugly People Fucking.

And it would be hilarious.

But if I were a girl, I would call it Universal.

And it would be something else.

It would be a dark basement.

It would be old carpet and closed drapes.

These details continue, and “Universal” is hilarious, and it is something else. It is an argument against patriarchy, in basements and tree houses, and in stories and in our bodies. It is an argument against patriarchy that allows some people to claim women’s concerns are not universal. “But it was surefire, my technique,” this narrator tells us. She knows what we want her to say, for she’s had some experience performing woman. But, “What if I say there is only this,” she does not ask, but tells.

She is right. In this book there are only words, sentences, stories.

It is the narrator in “Universe” who is wrong. She says, “There is just the endless dialogue between one’s own soft brain and one’s own soft brain.” She is wrong because of the gift her author has made of Spectacle. Steinberg takes an internal universe and makes it universal: she takes the dialogue out of her own brain and puts it in ours.

Spectacle is a book of compelling narrators, spectacular form, wrought details. But in the words of one of those narrators, from “Supernova,” “this is not the place for adjectives.” Because “[a]t some point, you become something other than girl. At some point you become confused. Then you’re that from that point on” (“Signifier”).

But challenging books like Spectacle open dialogue that eases that confusion by reminding us that yes, it is right to be confused. Because we are something other than girl, as mirrors like Spectacle remind us.