Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-1555976316 

What We Write About When We Write About What We Think About

or The Bird Is Not a Metaphor

Nava Renek

Start out with a baseline narrative: an individual’s life. There is a woman; she has a brother; she has a father; she has a mother.  Bad things happen that she remembers.  Good things happen that she can hardly recall. Events are dissected, redacted, ruminated upon and conflated, leaving narrative scraps of truths, lies, and distortions: things we tell ourselves, our friends, our parents, our shrinks in hopes of explaining the pain and absurdity contained in our relatively inconsequential lives.

Constantly woven into the narratives is the author’s implicit challenge for us to  both believe and disbelieve her narrators’ words:  


There is no intentional metaphor in this story.

There is no intentional meaning in this story

I would not subject you to intentional meaning

I would not subject you to some grand scheme



Yet, in “Universe,” the narrator claims: “Everything was a metaphor this day.”

Throughout the entire collection statements such as “this to say” “I’m telling you this” “which is to say” “by which I mean” “all this to say” leave the reader at the mercy of the narrator/ confessor or artiste de vache merde to determine what is true or false, symbolic or pedestrian, erudite or mundane.

Steinberg’s style rests on this ability to control and interpret the facts, yet even the retelling of facts in both life and fiction comes refracted from an individual’s psyche.  A writer’s successful depiction of this process could only leave the reader questioning the truth.  Spectacle harnesses this ambiguity,  deftly reflecting the complicated inarticulate ways individuals process their existence in a Beckettian world.

No story expresses this more poignantly than “Cowgirl,” a depiction of the absurdity of a daughter having to choose life or death for her father via euthanasia while during a conference call.  “It was the doctor saying, Trust me; it was hard to trust a person I couldn’t see; it was hard to trust a person I could.”  The narrator goes on to say “it was stupid to blame a terrible plug I never saw; it was unclear if the plug was a literal plug or not; it was possibly a switch one flipped; it was possibly a metaphor.”  Eventually, the cord to the plug becomes a cowgirl’s lasso that the narrator victoriously swings around her head as her date tells her she’s “got issues.”  Yeah she’s got issues:  she lives in a world where one must choose over the phone whether a loved one lives or dies!

The narrators in all these stories have issues.  Serious ones.  There are voices in their heads, synesthesia of emotions, neurosis, and just plain whining, yet these are the voices in everyone’s head if one cared to listen and take the time to ponder them, pinpointing hot spots from their pasts and tracing those critical experiences to a constellation of responses and repercussions that continue for possibly a lifetime.

Steinberg also investigates the shame that comes with this kind of confession, as illustrated in the story “Spectator” which begins en media res with a semi-colon, as if this story itself were a humiliating little secret that wanted to draw as little attention to itself as possible.  The narrator heartbreakingly proclaims: “there’s not much to say about my boyfriend; just he was hands down the kindest person I had ever met.”  Yet, she goes on to tell a story of betraying him by seducing his friend. It’s this kind of statement and contradictory action that sometimes leads the reader to want to scream: “Get Thee to a psychoanalyst  muy pronto!” But just in time, the narrator opens up with the compassion and insight of anyone living in our post-Freudian era.  “I was just a girl and lines were crossed; I was just a girl, and rules were broken; I was just a girl and blank happened once; and blank happened twice; and blank was said; and blank was felt; and blank would be dealt with eventually.”

The impressiveness of this collection is not the documentation of dysfunctional relationships or family dynamics, but the illustration of how each individual lives within the grips of his/her own reoccurring narrative—pressure points that  will forever influence the way we experience our daily lives.  It could be a cheating father, an abandoned  daughter, a distraught mother.  Pick one or use one of your own and you’ll get it.

Steinberg’s language, sentence structure and mastery of irony through dramatizing juxtaposition and contrasts is what elevates this collection beyond chicklit or psychobabble.  Spread out below the narrative of neurosis, is the blueprint of a writer trying to put her finger on some of the challenges of being a thinking, breathing, feeling creature in a universe that often seems full of randomness and unpredictability. In the last lines of “Universal,”  the final story in the collection, the narrator asks:


But what if I say you have no soul

What if I say there is no soul

What if I say there is only this.

And what if I’m right.


As Beckett would’ve answered:  You must go on.

Nava Renek

Nava Renek is a writer, editor, and educator.  Her books include Spiritland (2002), No Perfect Words (2007) and Mating In Captivity (2012).  In 2008 she edited Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of XXperimental Prose By Contemporary Women Writers.