Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nothing

Spectacle (Stories) by Susan Steinberg

"Steinberg is one of the best fiction writers in America today." Joshua Furst

I was tempted to begin this journal entry with the famous final proposition from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but since no one has any idea what Wittgenstein meant--I certainly don't--I'll quote instead a proposition I flatter myself that I do understand, 6.522 for those of you who are following along at home: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." [Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dis zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.]  The key word here is Unaussprechliches: my dictionary provides "inexpressible" and also "unutterable" as if these words meant the same thing.  That which cannot be spoken might lie beyond language--the feeling one has for one's children, for example--or it might be the case that we know the proper word for what we are feeling but refuse to utter it because it would be too terrible to do so--I feel this way when a news reporter sticks a microphone in the face of a bereaved husband and asks how he feels now that his (let's imagine) wife has been crushed in a collapsed garment factory.  What he feels is both inexpressible and unutterable.  I don't mean to split hairs here, but the distinction is an important one both for our lives and in our engagement with serious literary works.
Raymond Carver was, of course, the most influential of minimalists; indeed, his impact on American literature has been remarkable, if not entirely (in my opinion) positive. It is likely that if you pursue an MFA in fiction writing you will be moved to produce sentences like Ray's sentences, or, as we say, to strive for the Carveresque:
"A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. Except for the chrome hooks, he was an ordinary-looking man of fifty or so.
'How did you lose your hands?' I asked after he'd said what he wanted.
'That's another story," he said. 'You want this picture or not?'" ["Viewfinder"]
Not much happens in a classic Carver story; drinks are poured, cigarettes are smoked, conversations tail off into uneasy silences.  When something does happen, as in "Viewfinder," you're hard-pressed to say what exactly and perplexed as to the why. "Gerald Weber didn't have any words left in him. He kept quiet and drove the car." ["The Pheasant"] And so it goes.  But in spite of the silences, there's something going on in Ray's little vignettes of American desperation--there's desperation for one thing, the sense that everything bad that can happen has already happened and we've been invited to witness the aftermath.  When I read Ray I feel like I do when I look at pictures of bombed-out cities. There we are, having a bourbon, sitting in the rubble.
Carver's palette is the inexpressible.  But Susan Steinberg goes Ray one better; she  mines the unutterable, not just the things that we are silent about but the things we cannot help but be silent about.  A Carver character is reticent; a Steinberg character is dumb (in the original meaning of the word):
"When the plane crashed, I was all messed up.
For years, I was all messed up.
I could see the scene inside the plane.
I could see the scene outside.
And I had thoughts of flying.
Then thoughts of falling. . . . " ["Spectacle"]
There are twelve pages of propositions just like these.  There are no characters to speak of, no incidents that we can believe in, no feelings expressed.  All p is q. No p is q. Some p is q.  Reading Spectacle, I thought about my study of symbolic logic, p's and q's that stand for propositions that stand for (as Wittgenstein briefly believed) pictures of the world. I thought of poems that are really prose; I though of prayers chanted in Latin--nonsense, but full of yearning.  Steinberg is doing something in her stories, but what exactly?
"Next someone turned up the radio and some song was on, and the six of us were riding up some burned-out Baltimore street. There was no one on the street but us. We were screaming out the words to this song. The another song came on and we knew that song too....I was just so fucking powerful in that moment." ["Superstar"] Well, it isn't Proust, but why should Susan Steinberg write like Proust? 
Here is Mr. Joshua Furst on Steinberg's Spectacle:
"In each of the stories, we see one or more aspects of how this narrator grapples with the relationship between her circumstances and her ability to control them. And the events presented in the stories reappear with nothing changed but the meaning they hold. The narrator is pressured into pulling the plug on her dying father; her college friend dies in a plane crash. She gets drunk. She has sex with someone she doesn’t like, or someone she does like but pretends not to, or someone she’s pretty sure doesn’t like her."

Fair enough.  But what isn't said here is that we readers don't know if any of these things are really happening--Steinberg purveys ultra-minimalism plus irony!  Is there a plane crash?  Does she kill her father? Has she slept with creeps? The lovely veil of fiction--our willingly suspended disbelief--Steinberg tears it  up with clinical efficiency--she's cataloging events and nothing more; causality is undercut; of course fiction is untrue, but what if it's not only untrue but pointless?

The "narrator"--a droning voice uttering gnomic propositions (see above) isn't only unreliable, she's a phantom, maybe dreaming what she tells the reader, but most certainly not meaning any of it.  Indeed, the word "grapples" in Mr. Furst's review is ludicrous--there is no touching let alone grappling in Spectacle. Steinberg's bursts of prose are feather-light; her detachment is absolute. 

The comparison to Wittgenstein isn't that far-fetched: "Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it--or at least similar thoughts"  In that case....we come to the end, to the futility of writing, of speaking, of feeling. Not the inexpressible or the unutterable, but the banal--not the "things that we pass over in silence" but the things unworthy of expression. What we talk about when there isn't any point in talking.

Untitled, Mark Tobey


Spectacle is published by Graywolf Press

George Ovitt (5/8/13)





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