Sex is a Spectacle (2013). Sex is a performance. A woman performing woman; a guy performing guy. In her collection of self-reflexive stories, Spectacle, Susan Steinberg repeatedly draws our attention back to the line between real and role-play, between the authentic and the act. In the story "Cowboys," the narrator describes her sexual exploits with nameless, faceless men and the part she plays.
I'm already reaching for the doorknob, a bigger whore than they want me to be. The sigh applies pressure to the woman. 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.
Sex forces her into a role, a mask—but it also allows her one. Gives her an escape. Because the story is really about the death of her father. And the story is actually about killing the father, about taking him off life support, about donating his body to science. And it's about the guilt that follows her now like a ghost. That lies in bed beside these men and their fragile organs beneath the ribcage. The story is about her attempts to sometimes confront and sometimes avoid her father, and about the inevitable outcomes of both losing and being never able to escape him. We see these themes addressed again and again throughout the book, for while the stories in Spectacle can be enjoyed alone, it is when they are gathered together in the collection, when they echo and engage with each other, when we witness the author grappling with the same subject, the same story in fact, from slightly different angles, a slightly different perspective—that the real story comes through. The story about telling the story.
Because storytelling, too, is a performance, a crossing between fiction and fact, a merging, a weave. Steinberg plays with the tropes of storytelling, with our readerly expectations, spinning them around, turning us upside down like a carnival ride. The narrator(s) stops, goes back, tells us she was lying, tells us she forgot something. Addresses the reader, pulls you like a character into the story. The narrator says to us in the opening story, "Superstar," "I was just so powerful in that moment. Like how I'm just so fucking powerful in this moment. Like how I kind of, admit it, own you." There is a power in sexuality, in playing the part of woman, just as there is power in telling a story. In the ability to invent, reorder, remember. It's more than just an unreliable narrator; Steinberg is working very intentionally in the blurry space between reality, memory, and invention.
Between who we are, who we tell ourselves we are, and who others decide we are. Like the woman performing, the narrator performs as well, holding us in the grip of her act—but not without identifying it as a performance, as artifice. And as a master of formal innovation, Steinberg uses the shape of her stories to enact this play of story—of telling and retelling and un-telling—to address the question of what is truth and what is authentic and whether that matters at all. Several (often seemingly unrelated) narrative threads wind and curl around each other like a nest of snakes. Each plotline is simple, and Steinberg's language is sparse and sharp, but as the story swirls about itself—narrative lines sometimes touching, sometimes rubbing together, then moving again apart—there is a spark, a charged electric space created by what is said and what is left unsaid. An untold story. "In a story about me and guys, there is only a circling around. And in a story about a story. In a story about the father." And this, ultimately, is the essence of Spectacle. It is a book...