by Weston Cutter
I got Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle (out from the of-course-they’re-still-killing-it Graywolf Press) I think in November and, sure: I’m just like everybody, and so I scanned names on the book’s back, seeing if the blurbs offered a hint of the DNA within and, therefore, if it’d be something I’d need, and for the record Spectacle has got blurbs from folks I very very much believe in, and also for the record (you know this already) blurbs mean very very little (though they can be sort of associatively helpful), and the work inside a book is always what’s important, and the blurbs on the back are very much the equivalent of a bib on some beauty, meaning at best a useful accessory.
Can you tell I don’t know how to talk about Spectacle? I don’t know how to talk about it. Spectacle is a dazzling jolt of a book, beautiful like few collections I’ve seen, ever. I don’t know if this is just a start-of-the-year temptation, the desire to freak out and proclaim that the literary world is doing well, hale and vital, etc., but it seems every year I’ get thrilled by something or a few things Jan-April, and this year’s first OH WOW is Spectacle. Here’s why:
1. Here’s how “Superstar,” the book’s first story, begin:
I once hung out with this shit group of kids and they were just such shit.
This is to say I made some mistakes.
I don’t want to do much other than draw/force attention to such lines, as they’re representative of the glory available everywhere in this book. If I were to present this in some lit-analysis way, I’d be forced to admit that Steinberg’s stuff is crunchy as bad gravel, crunchy as bones with cartilage gone raw between them: her sentences are wonder/dangerfully sharp things, and you less apprehend the story as it’s being built but feel it, like it’s being injected or tattooed or tapped against you with moderate roughness.
2. There’s a better feel for order and structure in this book than any book of stories I’ve seen, ever. That’s bombastic and too-much, but fuck it: the thing is better tailored and organized than many novels. That feeling you get sometimes from very good books of poetry in which there’s a thread your hands can’t help but find and catch again and again on? This book feels like that. To do Steinberg’s ordering genius justice would take several thousand words, and I’ve got a sick wife and daughter upstairs and so will not here go into it, but maybe this: the ordering of a book is, seemingly, a sort of minor thing. It’s hard to think of when a book’s ordering really hurts it, but when the ordering’s done well, the help it offers is shocking, immense: it turns a good book great and unforgettable. Spectacle is that book. I tried/failed to get at this down below, in the interview with Steinberg, and she addressed it, but please just pick up the book and be dazzled by this.
There are more than two points to make, but I’m forcing you to tread water instead of offering you the good parts, which are as follows:
++ down below is a brief back-and-forth-over-email interview with Steinberg. She’s dynamite. She’s also got two other books, and you’re damn right you should be purchasing them (that’s as much to be as it’s to you).
++ I have TWO COPIES OF SPECTACLE TO GIVE AWAY. If you live in the US, please write to wlcutter(at)hotmail.com by 5pm this Friday, 1/25, and I’ll draw two names at that point and be in touch to get yr address.
Okay, now the good stuff:
In the loosest and/or most general way, how did you come to writing and/or what are some influences on your stuff? I know these questions can be toxic. I’m real interested, here, in the fact that you seem to be torquing the hell out of your stuff at a language level a la Lish + co, yet your work ultimately gives a lot in coherence, in narrative, in ways (I don’t think) the reader’s given such by Lish + co (+ co being, I guess, Lutz, Williams, Hempel, those sort of folks)(that’s not a dig on them: your work just reads like it’s giving more in terms of emotional/narrative stuff, though that could easily just be my reading). Is this remotely close to anything like what you’re aware of doing, or trying to do?
I came to writing short stories via the visual arts—I was a painting major in an art school. After graduating, I shared a studio with some friends in Baltimore, and after that, I moved to Boston, because Baltimore had gotten too small and Boston was a place I’d completely idealized. I found a studio there too, and I painted in the days and wrote late at night while my paintings were drying. Writing was a way to keep going I guess, to keep working through the stories I was trying to tell through painting, and after a while, I only wanted to write. All to say, my writing didn’t grow out of reading fiction so much, and I wasn’t even aware that my work was dealing with language in any different kind of way until my peers in grad school pointed it out. As for Lish and Co., I became aware of this in my grad program as well, and I felt about it as I did other schools: I liked some of the work that came out of it, but not all. But I think what you’re asking has more to do with prioritizing emotional content over aesthetics? Or balancing the two? I’ll just say it’s important for me to try to achieve this constant balance between form and content, presence and absence, emotion and withholding of, among other things, even mechanical things, while I’m writing. And this was how I painted, as well. I think the tension in the work can grow out of this struggle in the process.
There’s this awesome symmetry to Spectacle, as if it’s almost palindromatic—Spectacle to Spectator, Signifier to Signified; a mimicry in structure or style in some stories (particularly those beginning with a semi-colon, which jump right out, obviously); the feeling (maybe just for me) that “Underthings” represents this a) other voice in the collection and b) a voice that’s equivicating more, or seems more about seeking than some of the other voices do. Anyway: does this notion of symmetry or palindrome ring remotely true for you? Was that an attempt? Or maybe just: that by the book’s conclusion there’s been a revision of things, these issues of exposure and sex/intimacy and family, these things are picked at again and again and set in different places/ways by the end than the start. I don’t know. This might be a lost question. If any of the bones of this make a bit of sense, I’d love to hear anything you’ve got.
I think a lot about how writers tell the same stories over and over, and how we’re not even always aware of these obsessions or recurrences. And I also think a lot about how it hasn’t always felt right to repeat myself as a writer, whereas, as a painter, I painted different versions of the same thing for years. The sort of “pairing” of stories in Spectacle started as a desire to retell the story “Cowboys.” It didn’t seem like telling it once was enough—not because I thought it was a good story but, rather, because it was a painful one, and now that I had taken a risk in telling it, I wanted to go through the experience again from a different perspective. I thought that retelling it would reveal something new or deepen the narrative. And I wanted to give myself permission to repeat unapologetically, to redo, to be unoriginal. This opened up other opportunities to push more connections throughout the book, connecting lines, images, forms, and titles to complicate the notion of narration and structure, to create echoes, and mostly to try to make sense of things.
Only because I’m inordinately fond of writing that’s specific in terms of place (I’m from the midwest, and doubtless you know enough midwesterners to know the sort that loves the place fervently and Believes in it, etc. [I'm that type, obv]): is there a place to these women and their stories? I know they mention specific locales (Warrensburg, Baltimore), but there’s little sense of being of any of those places, nothing rooted. Does this play at all? I guess the only real possible q would be how come, but I’m curious about intent and anything behind the how come as well.
No matter where these stories take place in the real-time of the narratives, I realize I’m mostly thinking about Baltimore, my hometown. It’s a place I’m deeply connected to and the place I can’t seem to stop writing, no matter how far west I go. I understand it more than I do any other place, and I suppose it’s the place in which I feel most understood. And yet I also had to get away from it to write about it (see question 1). So while my characters are in Boston or San Francisco, like me, their stories are often rooted elsewhere. All to say, place plays a part in this collection, but in a quiet, internal, minimally described way. It’s like it lives inside the characters, as opposed to being where the characters live.
This might be hilariously/awfully off, but there seems to be this almost morality to the book, at least if one reads start to finish and one gets to this woman whose voice is basically in the reader’s head by that point, and the final words have to do with (what I read anyway) just being present, with the voice/performance/story that’s ultimately (as I read it) connecting. Is that remotely fair? This doesn’t seem a dour book at all—it’s one of the strongest, most ultimately positive books I’ve read in a good bit. I don’t know. I’m curious. It’s just interesting: the women in this book are all sorts of steel and edge, but the drive to connect, the baseline significance of reaching out (and not in a life’s-fucked-let’s-connect way, but more life’s-fucked-we-can-be-in-some-small-thing-together-briefly way) seems to ring like a bell in this. Who knows.
“…life’s-fucked-we-can-be-in-some-small-thing-together-briefly…” That sums it up.