Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle was recommended to me by a fellow blogger with trustworthy taste and this recommendation was supported by highly praising reviews from critics and authors alike. For me, however, the promise of Steinberg’s prose fell flat. I always feel like I’ve failed as a reader when I don’t respond positively to books that others have been enthralled by. Infinite Jest is another example of this; David Foster Wallace’s ideas about literature and the failure of irony are fascinating, but for some reasons his novel just didn’t work for me. So, this post is my attempt to figure out my own feelings about Spectacle. Hopefully I’ll convince you that I’m not a terrible reader in the process.
Steinberg’s short stories are primarily concerned with exploring questions of female identity and the roles adopted by women in their relationships with men and society in general. Although I found the stories largely devoid of any great emotional meaning, Steinberg does occasionally succeed in producing poignant remarks about her subject. One example is the comparison Steinberg makes between the reactions of two men to a female driver: the first verbally abuses her, while the second comes to her rescue. These are two very different men, yet they both respond to the femininity of Steinberg’s narrator, calling her ‘certain names reserved for women, certain names I’d been called before and would be called again.’ On the other hand, the sensitivity with which Steinberg handles the subject of female identity is not extended to her treatment of male characters. Arguably the nameless, formless men in these stories are as objectified as Steinberg’s narrators consider themselves to be.
Initially, I was taken in by Steinberg’s pithy and unadorned prose. Steinberg’s narrators (perhaps it’s incorrect to speak of them in the plural, as every story is told by the same voice) reflect on their own word choices and are careful to avoid tired metaphors. This self-awareness was enjoyable, at first, but as the same techniques are used in each story, the postmodern playfulness quickly becomes laboured. Giving each female narrator the same voice undermines the collection’s potential to present a moving piece of fiction. Elements which feel powerful and engaging in the first story have become dull and repetitive by the third. Several stories are revisited in the latter half of the collection; the circularity of its structure exemplifies the fault of the book for me: for all its early promises, the collection ultimately goes nowhere. Overall Spectacle felt like the work of a creative-writing student: not without promise, but still a distinctly unpolished voice.