San Francisco-based writer Susan Steinberg experiments with form and structure in her arresting story collection, Spectacle, as she examines the roles men and women play.

“The woman,” she writes, “is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” An unnamed woman narrates these 13 first-person stories, revisiting certain touchstones—her relationships with her brother and divorced parents, especially her father, an addict; the memory of a friend’s death in an airplane accident; the shifting balance of power between men and women in relationships, especially in tense situations.

In the story “Superstar,” for example, the narrator accidentally scrapes a man’s car with her own. He screams at her and belittles her, “calling (her) certain names reserved for women,” until another man intervenes, taking over the fight, recasting her as “some sweet thing” he must protect.

Steinberg captures charged incidents in sharp and nervy prose, questioning common euphemisms. When the narrator must decide whether to discontinue life support for her father, she writes bluntly: “There are some who say I did not kill my father. Not technically they mean.”

The doctor who advises her “did not, of course, use the word kill. He had another word, a series of words, a more technical way of wording.” The woman feels pressured by the doctor and by her brother to make this decision over the phone at 4 a.m. In this story and throughout the collection, the narrator stands outside the heat of the moment and speaks from a cool, rational remove. When the doctor sighs, frustrated with her hesitancy, Steinberg writes, “The sigh applies pressure to the woman. Then the woman is supposed to give them what they want.”

She takes this emotional distance even further in the story “Universe,” in which the narrator’s unborn child dies, and Steinberg writes, “One could now drink heavily. One could now eat shark.” Sometimes, this technique makes the narrator seem callous, but in most of the stories, this flinty stance toward personal loss simply underscores its horror.

Steinberg applies the same intense analysis to lighter moments, as when the narrator agrees to hike with various boyfriends who love nature, as she does not. Steinberg writes, “I’d hiked all day through mud; I was scraped all over, dirty all over; I wasn’t averse to dirt; I was averse to something else: like the pressure of having to pretend I cared about a bird, a stone, a star.”

Spectacle is a penetrating collection, and although the narrator is sometimes powerless, the author never is. Steinberg masterfully controls language to convey her stark insights about unbalanced relationships, in which one person always has the upper hand over another.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Spectacle: Stories

By Susan Steinberg


$14, 160 pages