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Miranda Morgan

Giving Voice to the Stifled, the Neglected, the Heartbroken: Susan Steinberg’s ‘Spectacle’

SpectacleSusan Steinberg’s Spectacle (152 pages; Graywolf Press) is a story collection of intertwining vignettes, a series of experimental narratives that speak to the vulnerability of being female and the roles women are expected to play in a male-dominant world. Steinberg does not cast a rosy hue over her portrayal of society. She writes her truth—her female narrators’ truth—and makes no attempt to censor it. The narrators’ voices blend together, as do the male characters: lovers, fathers, and brothers move in and out of one another until they become indistinguishable.

The opening story, “Superstar,” tells of a woman who breaks into an ex-lover’s car and steals his radio. She had been scorned and is trying to salvage a relationship by possessing the remnants of the man whom she fell too hard for and who forgot about her too easily. “I was young and I didn’t steal the stereo because I wanted the stereo. I stole it rather, because I wanted the guy,” she says. There is nothing for the narrator to do but to watch this man go home with another woman as she is left holding the broken stereo.

In “Cowboys,” Steinberg then spins us a story of a woman’s grappling with her father’s death. She is the self-proclaimed killer of her father as she makes the decision to take him off life support. “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.” Women are not supposed to be thieves or killers, only mothers, lovers, homemakers, daughters. Women, as revealed by Steinberg, are to be whoever men want them to be. From the accounts of Steinberg’s narrators, these roles are isolating, lonely, abusive, and a separation from one’s self. “The sigh applies pressure to the woman,” the narrator says. “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.”

In “Supernova” a woman tells us of the loss of her friend in a plane crash. Steinberg’s raw writing style causes the reader to grieve along as the narrator reflects on her loss. Then in the  following story,“Signifier,” Steinberg gets at the heart of her argument: women fill the roles purported by men because it is terrifying to exist in this world without them. Women are often given no other option but to be defined in relation to men. “But there I was, running to catch up with them,” the narrator says. “There I was, some scared-as-shit girl. I was some scared-as-shit child. Running in wrong shoes up the trail. Scared to be left alone.” It feels wrong, it feels demeaning, but the alternative is to be left alone in the woods.

Steinberg’s biting collection cuts deep. Is it still possible we live in a time that is so backward, so repressive of the feminine? Spectacle acts as the voice of the women neglected, abused, stifled, and heartbroken.

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The Story Is All That We Are: Percival Everett’s ‘Percival Everett By Virgil Russell’

Percival Everett by Virgil RussellPercival Everett By Virgil Russell by Percival Everett proves to be exactly what the title advertises; a novel that teases the reader with the identity of the narrator until the last page and even then, we are left wondering. The book opens with a conversation in a nursing home between a dying father and his son, presumably based on Percival Everett and his own father, a final attempt to connect and salvage a relationship weakened by time spent apart. The character of the father begins by telling his son he is going to read his writing aloud. “And I’ve written something for you. He looked at my face. Not to you, but for you. It’s sort of something you would write, if you wrote. Here it is:” And with that, we’ve become audience to intertwining plotlines, a dream-like collection of characterizations, and a rumination of what it is to be human.

In the first few pages we meet Gregory Lang, a painter whose marriage is on thin ice. A young woman, Meg Caro, shows up at his door, stating she would like nothing more than to be his intern. Yet as the book continues, we learn Meg Caro wants a father in Lang. Next, we encounter Murphy, a recently single man who becomes the doctor to an overweight neighbor in exchange for his camera. They are soon joined by the likes of Charlton Heston and Nat Turner, and as these stories and characters weave in and out of one another, more is revealed about the father and son relationship that was introduced in the beginning. Teufelsdrockh, the nursing home where the father and son are relaying stories, remains in the background and the book concludes with an extravagant last-stand against the “Gang of Six,” a group of dictatorial orderlies that abuse the father and his companions. The father steals the master key ring to the nursing home and wreaks havoc as best he can in his old age, mounting a last stand against death itself. Yet, familiar details and references from Lang’s story, Murphy’s story, and the father and son’s dynamic show us this entire narrative is a cohesive work.

It doesn’t matter we are never certain of the identity of the narrator, of the father, or of the son because they are one; they are all of each other, just as the stories told by the father blend into a singular story. “I’m an old man or his son writing an old man writing his son writing an old man. But none of this matters and it wouldn’t matter if it did matter.” The father and son become one through the stories; Percival Everett fuses with his father and the connection between the two, the relationship that Meg Caro wanted with Gregory Lang, is achieved.

With his new novel, Everett gives us a work of fiction that grapples with grief, the fragility of human life, death, relationships, loneliness, and yearning for purpose. In a work that could almost be categorized as a lyric essay, Everett manages to keep the reader’s interest, despite the twist and turns of this complex narrative. We are left breathless, with heartache and with the understanding we are all made of stories, nothing but products of our diverging and converging plot lines that eventually will come to an inexorable point.

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