SEPTEMBER 14, 2019
WHAT IF there is no larger significance to anything we do, anything we think, anything we write? In her 2013 story “Cowboys,” Susan Steinberg teases the reader with just this possibility. “There is no intentional metaphor in this story,” her narrator insists. “There is no intentional meaning in this story.” This is typical for Steinberg. Over three books of short stories and a new novel-in-stories, Machine, she has continually given voice to narrators who painstakingly resist the definitive. They make frequent use of the conditional tense, wondering how things might unfold were such and such a thing to occur. They tease us with the possibility that what they said happened might not have really happened or might have happened differently than they said it did. And finally, as in the quote above, they dare us to find meaning — any meaning — in the stories they tell us.
But stories without any meaning can soon prove tiresome. If everything is only as it appears, then there is little point to either living or reading. The reader soon discovers, though, that Steinberg’s narrators don’t really mean it, that they do want things to mean something but are wary of acknowledging the possibility. Occasionally, though, they do. In the story “Supernova” — like “Cowboys” from her third collection, Spectacle — the narrator is able to set herself momentarily free from a world of meaninglessness. “Because the snow just seemed like more than snow,” she says as it begins to snow outside. “It was something about the light. I didn’t know what it was. But the guy said, Your tongue, and laughed again. And then I was falling into him. And if I must use an adjective, right now, right here, I would use beautiful.”
For Steinberg’s narrators, though, evasion is a more natural mode than vulnerability. It’s ultimately a protective gesture, a way of rejecting the possibility of anything positive so as to ward off disappointment or something worse than disappointment. A good deal of this disappointment that her characters feel comes as a direct consequence of lifestyle. The people in Steinberg’s stories are often highly self-destructive, drug- and booze-addled individuals who hurt each other as a matter of course. But some of their bad feelings come from the ways that, even in the supposedly anything-goes environs of after-hours bars and latchkey households, gender roles dictate actions and behaviors, with guys perpetually performing the role of guys and girls the role of girls. “It was like I was trying to play a woman,” one of Steinberg’s narrators tells us, “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.” These roles are clearly insufficient for a satisfactory life, but as also becomes clear in the works of Steinberg, they are not immutable either — and in bending roles, a (small) possibility of escape emerges.
These concerns, along with an increased focus on class, form the thematic spine of Steinberg’s first novel, Machine. Unfolding as 14 linked stories, the book comes at its central narrative — a city girl’s dealing with the death of a fellow teenager’s drowning at the shore town where she spends her summers — from an appealingly diverse range of perspectives. Although all narrated by the same unnamed character, the chapters cover different aspects of her life, many tangential to the main narrative, and are stylistically diverse. Echoing the range of approaches in Spectacle, some of the stories plunge forward in a dizzyingly headlong block of prose, individual clauses separated by semicolons. Some take a more leisurely pace, with single sentences often forming whole paragraphs. Still others fall halfway in between, the tension between motion and stasis giving the story its charge.
But whatever the specific style, the chief feature of Steinberg’s prose is repetition. Take the beginning of the chapter entitled “Liars”:
were we to get more scientific;
were we to consider the weight of the body;
were we to consider the height from which it fell;
This unusual construction instantly sets up expectations about how the subsequent lines will unfold syntactically. Since each of the first three phrases are dependent clauses, we expect an independent clause to follow, squaring the sentence. But the repetition continually delays the arrival of that closure, which in fact does not occur. The narrator’s hypotheticals, using Steinberg’s favorite device of the provisional “were,” beget further musings, never definitive answers. At other times, Steinberg will introduce a sentence or two early in a chapter only to repeat the phrasing later on. The effect of this is, as in the beginning of “Liars,” to create a sense of endlessness in the lives of its characters. Life doesn’t conclude, it rarely moves forward; it just tends to repeat.
The characters long for a break in this cycle, but don’t know how to achieve it. In an early chapter entitled “Machines,” the narrator puts it like this:
there were times I wanted nothing more than to break free from our orbit;
I wanted a force to come in, already, and upset it;
I’d been secretly holding on, I admit, to the hope of this force coming in;
not an asteroid force or a black hole force;
but the slightest shred of holy;
some shred of belief that everything would be revealed;
that the world was something conceivable;
a linear path directed toward some good;
The astronomic metaphors employed in this passage are constant throughout the book, as the narrator often thinks about her life in terms of the celestial. This focus on extraterrestrial matters suggests, once again, a desire for a world beyond the narrator’s own limited existence, but it has other implications as well. One of these is a desire for some kind of order, a logical, rational way of looking at a life that too often can feel uncontrollably chaotic. Even in its ordering of chaos, though, science can only take you so far. In the yearning reflection above, the narrator recognizes this limit. The force she wants to come and change her life is not related to materialist matters such as asteroids or black holes, but instead to the mystical-religious notion of a “shred of holy.”
In fact, the narrator’s scientific thinking rarely leads to any sort of acceptance of the world but rather to an awareness of the chaos of the universe, of her lack of control over just about anything. But her belief in science is also a marker of class pride. The narrator comes from a well-to-do city family that not only owns a summer house in the beach town where the book takes place, but owns a summer house on the “correct” shore of that town. She spends her summers drinking and taking pills with her friends, her older brother, and her older brother’s friends, while enjoying some dalliances with the guys who are also hanging around. There is an inevitable tension between the summer visitors who enjoy special privileges, such as easy treatment by the police when they get into drunken mischief, and the locals, a tension that increases when a local girl drowns amid possible involvement by the wealthier visitors. This incident becomes the event around which the book revolves, the girl’s death stirring up feelings of guilt in the narrator, despite her lack of direct involvement.
This difference is made clear early on when the narrator, some of the guys, and the local girl who will drown are looking up at planets in the night sky. When they point the planets out to the girl, she says, “God,” and the narrator can’t relate: “we said, No; because she meant God, and we meant something else”; naïve belief in religion becomes a class marker. In the narrator’s supposedly more sophisticated understanding, God is simply not a factor in her thinking, although it is clear she yearns for something more than a materialistic worldview can give her. Nonetheless, her adherence to science is something of a class-defining rallying cry, as when in the same chapter, she suddenly exclaims: “our master plan is science; and by master we mean control the world; and by plan we mean control the world; and by science we mean fuck you.”
This class difference receives its starkest treatment, though, in a heartrending passage involving the narrator’s father. A man of self-assured superiority who treats everyone below him, including his own family, with dominating aggression, he runs over a dog that had been sleeping in the middle of the road. While the locals knew the dog’s habits and gave him a wide berth, the father did not, and even though the dog’s owner and her family are all greatly upset, he refuses to acknowledge any fault on his part. For this never-wrong man, confirmed in his sense of correctness by his privileged class status, the local family is to blame for allowing their dog to sleep in the street:
Because it was her fault, he would say to her, that the dog was sleeping in the road.
And what kind of person, he would say to her, would let a dog just sleep there like that.
We watched the woman’s body wilt, her face wilt, the kids’ faces almost too sad to look at.
And their poor sad house behind them.
The whole world sad around it.
The father thus falls into his class- and gender-dictated (or enabled) role, acting out his sense of privilege at the expense of an impoverished local family. In fact, everyone in Steinberg’s books is acting out one role or another, a state of affairs that generally leads to much unhappiness for them and everyone they interact with. The narrator plays the girl when she interacts with the guys at the shore (even as she longs to play — and sometimes does play — the guy), and she plays the rich girl when she interacts with the locals (even as she occasionally resists). It’s not easy to get away from these assigned roles, but in doing so lies our only chance at a tentative freedom, our only chance of obtaining that much-sought-after thing, which Steinberg’s characters so rarely obtain, that elusive “shred of holy.”