Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Gertrude Stein put words in relation to other words showing something about language and how it functions as it was functioning communicating some idea clearly though with a little curve while also communicating this new idea about the act of communication itself. Insistent in its rhythm, stripped bare to reveal an otherwise hidden layer of filigree, Stein’s work, at its most striking, infuses a newness into the old. One is jarred, then one is pleased, then one is somewhat addicted.
Susan Steinberg works something of the same craft, and these are shockingly pleasant pages to read, stories that stutter and spiral, taking line after line to peel back and retell, focusing, all the while, on the performance of roles that is social life, particularly female life, the gender role as a set of ways to act and be and think and feel. But how does one act natural when the natural has been revealed as cultural, conditioned, contingent? It is one thing to be I in the eyes of one’s little dog, another altogether to recognize one’s sense of self as an aggregate of structures of power. There is a sort of dance, desires and denials in tentative, stumbling equipoise: “The sigh applied pressure to the woman. Then the woman is supposed to give them what they want. / Which is to say the woman is then supposed to perform. Which is to say the woman is then supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.”
“There are some who say I did not kill my father,” begins one story, proceeding to offer qualifications on this fact: “But the ones who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me. / They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed. / What I mean is they cannot have sex with a woman who carries, though all women carry, an unbearable weight.” The weight of history, an accumulation of forces culminating, for a given woman, in a given “desperate performance.” One could throw theory at such a reality, or one could write, as Steinberg does, like a scalpel through an eye:
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.
Accidents of experience, the limits of knowledge: narrators realize that the limits of their world are the limits of their own subjective experience, perceive the world as a result of misconceptions (“One used to think mourning was spelled morning, and then, as morning, it was a different kind of dove, a different sound they made.”), expand the boundaries of their world through some startling new event (which is maybe a disaster, a death, or the initial dip of a French fry into a milkshake: “and I said, Sick, and he said, Fuck you, and I said, Fuck you, and he said, Try it, dumbass, and I stuck a French fry into the milk shake, and it was amazing.”).
Such dialogue gives witness to the “amateur” as Steinberg calls it in one story. Like amateur porn, “like broken nails,” a genre characterized by “something having to do with desperation. / The amateur’s desperation becoming mine.” Amidst ubiquitous trauma, the narrators here reflect and remember, obfuscating as they replay. The only thing reliable is the persistence of roles, roles one is demanded to know, to enact, to embody—“I said, What do you want. / And he said, I want to fuck you. / But he was already fucking me. / So I said, What else do you want. And he said, Shut up. / He said, Shut the fuck up. / Just fuck me, he said.”
Lived desperation—for pleasure, for connection, perhaps for authenticity—is anathema to life bound by these given roles. What Steinberg gives us, in the content of her stories and through the startling craft of the language she uses to convey that content, is the paradox of being “used to feeling like women feel . . . used to being nothing other than a woman” while also always aware that such “feeling” and “being” is a series of tropes, masks: “And the woman performs happy woman on a sunny street. / The woman performs this all feels good this all feels really good.”
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