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Steinberg’s narrator is from one of the tough parts of Baltimore. Her mother left when she was young, and she was raised (if you can call it that) by her rough-and-tumble father, who taught her (for better or worse) how to think like a man and act like a woman. She’s got a brother with whom she sometimes gets along. She’s not afraid of her sexual power, but knows full well how much trouble it can get her into.
In each of the stories, we see one or more aspects of how this narrator grapples with the relationship between her circumstances and her ability to control them. And the events presented in the stories reappear with nothing changed but the meaning they hold. The narrator is pressured into pulling the plug on her dying father; her college friend dies in a plane crash. She gets drunk. She has sex with someone she doesn’t like, or someone she does like but pretends not to, or someone she’s pretty sure doesn’t like her.
“Spectacle” builds on themes and motifs that have been lurking in Steinberg’s previous volumes — bad fathers, bad boyfriends, the struggle for power between the sexes — but it distills these themes and motifs into perfect little missives from the desperate urban end zone of American society.
In the first story, “Superstar,” the narrator revels in her ability to manipulate men by playing the role of the victimized woman while fretting over the fact that sometimes this leads to her victimizing herself. This idea reappears in the final story, “Universal,” but this time the narrator is actually being victimized — her brother and his friends sexually humiliate her, and then she begins a sexual relationship with one of the friends — and instead of playing the role of the victim, she does just the opposite.
“Spectacle” is like a diamond-hard switchblade in the hands of a master street fighter. Each story slices forth with quick precision. You keep thinking: “Wow, that was electric and scary and brave of her. There’s no way she’ll be able to top it.” And then she does. Which is the sign of great writing, experimental or not. In fact, the most experimental thing about Susan Steinberg is that she knows how very much a story can say about being alive, right now, right here, and she knows how to trick her words into saying it.
Joshua Furst is the author of ‘The Sabotage Café’ (Knopf, 2007). He is a frequent contributor to the Forward.