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These stories explore the wounds that turn desire for love into performance art.

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Book review: Spare, brave stories explore love, lust, loss, life

  • Article by: KATHRYN SAVAGE
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 15, 2013 - 4:46 PM

Desire is desire for recognition, and I was controlled by desire just like you. In the 12 linked stories that make up Susan Steinberg's latest collection, "Spectacle" (Graywolf Press, 135 pages, $14), troubled, unnamed women (or the same unnamed woman) drift between cities -- Baltimore, Boston, Warrensburg, Mo. -- narrating tales of lust, substance abuse, theft and domestic violence.

Pushcart-winning "Cowboys" portrays a young woman who must decide if she should take her father off life support. In "Underthings" a boyfriend hits his girlfriend in the face with a book, and she tries to interpret the assault as accidental. Central to each narrative are the pains of disconnection, the guilt that accompanies recklessness, the lure of seduction and its attending approximation to love. In "Superstar," after a fender-bender, the narrator apologizes to the driver:

"As I stepped out of the car I was suddenly some very small thing, by which I mean I was suddenly a woman to this guy, absorbing these names reserved for women, standing there in the downpour, reduced to something snail small and just as tightly coiled.

"I wanted to be a guy."

Imagery recurs: the best friend's plane crash, the absent mother, the father stumbling home drunk, a series of lonely or violent lovers, an emotionally distant brother. Structure dominates. (Paragraphs are a single sentence; stories are bookended with semi-colons.) It might be true that men -- even the most despicable and broken -- are dangerously powerful in this world because they possess the potential for recognition. Her themes are the price of romantic longing, and the ways past trauma creates an individual with porous borders, complicit in self-destructive, conflicted actions. Each of the 12 stories has a particular focus, but as themes and images redouble, a singular novelistic voice emerges: emotionally grave, confessional and bold.

A demonstrative and psychologically complex passage from "Cowgirl":

"I was in love with myself some nights; but there were often too many men in the picture; there were often too many men I needed to please; and there was no way to shut it off; there was the date wanting something I didn't want; there was my father singing, Wake up wake up; there was the doctor saying, Do it already; there was my brother saying, Do it already; there was a plane past the window; there was sun past the window; and there was me saying, Mother, to nothing there."

Readers of Lydia Davis and Anne Carson will welcome Steinberg's spare, innovative prose imbued with the cadence of verse. Rendered with formal originality, these hard-to-put-down stories explore the wounds that turn desire for love into performance art. This is a vulnerable book, gorgeously attending to grief, to lust, courageously bearing witness to all of life's deprave and human spectacles.

Kathryn Savage's writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Ploughshares book reviews blog and City Pages. She teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center.

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