Reviews

Susan Steinberg Throws Convention and Form to the Sea in “Machine”

A review of Susan Steinberg's new novel.

Susan Steinberg’s latest work, Machine, is a novel that upends the format’s structure from the first letter of text. Her unique style allows for the vulnerability of the narrator to easily pour through and saturate the audience. Steinberg’s writing sinks its teeth in down to the bone and refuses to release. We’re pulled into memories as murky as the water beneath the dock near which much of the story is set and left to drown in the narrator’s guilt. We come up gasping for air at the checkpoints where she “breaks the fourth wall” and addresses her confidants — younger girls (possibly even her daughters) who tag along and want to be like her: girls that want to be ignored by and swim naked in front of boys they like and don’t like; girls that want to take unknown prescription pills just to see what they do; girls who dare to traumatize each other out of boredom; girls who are next in line to be objectified by boys on the dock, their own fathers, and the women their fathers cheat on their mothers with. Machine is a cautionary tale that may be less a warning and more a prep course on girlhood and womanhood.

Steinberg tells the story from the narrator’s perspective with the assistance of sentence structure. From chapters that begin with punctuation, to passages written as poetic stanzas, to chapters composed of a single, uncapitalized paragraph — we see the narrator’s story from various states of mind. The text is as frenetic on the page as the thoughts of a teenage girl walking in on her father with a woman that is not her mother. It is not as forthright as George Herbert’s “The Altar,” but how words appear on the page is directly connected to how the narrator is feeling about life, her circumstances, and herself at that moment.

There are familiar beats that remind us of teenage-ness, but what comes through to the forefront is shame that accompanies guilt. When a girl –– who could or could not be a friend of the narrator –– drowns, we are slowly let in on just how much culpability there is to go around. This is the inciting incident that causes a chain of events that affect her friends and family and everyone in town. The narrator has many experiences during this period where she seems to regret her decisions: whether or not to call for help when a local girl riding her bike is seriously injured when boys stretch a wire across the boardwalk as she flies by or whether to tell her mother about the other woman. She regrets her lack of action but feels guilty about standing idly by, observing.

Each of the first seven chapters is titled after how the narrator sees people in her life, including herself: liars, killers, stars, etc. The next seven chapter titles repeat — though not in order — but the perspective and the writing structure is not consistent with the previous chapter of the same name. Unfortunately, the narrator’s razor-sharp vision within the ebbs and flows of perspective is also directed at her own flaws and never lets up:

“; it’s the girl saying, I dare you, into my ear; it’s me doing whatever she says; it’s always me like some kind of child; it’s me like some kind of dog; Jump, she says; How high, I say; so obedient; so weak; it’s the pill we split in the washroom; and the world now flat like worlds in cartoons; and the grass sucking down in tiny holes; like a thousand mouths pulling us deeper in; and I would happily go there into the holes, my ears stuffed full of grass and dirt; and how pleasant it might be in the dirt, if nothing slithered through it; how pleasant to hide so deep below the ugly noise of this ugly world;”

Steinberg’s latest novel is a text that if you only read it once, you feel like you’ve missed everything important… but you do realize just how important it is, so you must turn back to page one immediately before it’s too late. Before the girls let another boy touch them; before the fathers say another harsh word to their daughters, before the girl jumps into the dark and turbulent water below; because you know she cannot be saved, but the only thing that will keep her alive is to keep reading.

FICTION
Machine
By Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press
Published August 20, 2019

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