In an essay for Publishers Weekly, Susan Steinberg wrote, “I’ve learned that the term experimental makes some people uneasy. … And I guess I understand why there could be resistance; there often is to that which goes against our expectations. But in art, I often want my expectations, which are generally low, to be shattered.” Appropriately enough, she has spent her career defying categories and blurring genres.
Her first two story collections, “Hydroplane” and “The End of Free Love,” came out with Fiction Collective 2, “a hub for artistically adventurous, nontraditional fiction,” descriptors that certainly apply to Steinberg’s prose. In 2013, she published the collection “Spectacle” with Graywolf Press, which is now publishing her equally stylish and innovative debut novel, “Machine.”
The brief and propulsive story transpires over a single summer at “the shore,” a region of “weathered motels tilted into a road,” “beaten-up houses and couches on the lawns,” and “the jetty the locals hang out on.” Hinging on the tension between townies and affluent out-of-towners, the central event of the narrative is the drowning of a teenage girl, “a local girl; she was no one we knew well,” the narrator observes, adding “even my father said she was a knockout; but she wasn’t that bright, my father said; so there was no one to blame, he said, for her drowning but her.” Of course, the question immediately becomes who really was to blame, and the rest of the story meditates on that mystery.
Speaking sometimes in first person plural to suggest that “we’re part of a demographic; we’re girls who go to private schools; girls at the top of our classes; girls who stay at the shore all summer and become the stars of the shore” and other times in first person singular, the narration builds a dreamlike atmosphere of repetition and variation, desire and obsession.
The semicolon is one of the most sophisticated yet poorly understood pieces of punctuation. Used to link two independent but related clauses, the semicolon allows for a distinctive complexity in a sentence’s meaning and rhythm. A prolific and graceful user of this oft-avoided punctuation mark, Steinberg employs it to lyrical and layered effect: “but there’s no point in building her character here;/no point in building the perfect girl you always want;/so here’s any girl holding her shoes;/any girl looking like some kind of ghost.”
Steinberg has a BFA in painting, and visually she employs ample white space, line breaks and fragments intermixed with more typically formatted prose. The resulting short statements stab straight to the existential revelations of growing up: “I mean nothing is going to save you.//And can you even save yourself.”
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”
By: Susan Steinberg.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 149 pages, $15.