by Susan Steinberg
August 2019 – Greywolf (US)
Susan Steinberg’s first novel, MACHINE, is a dazzling and innovative leap forward for a writer whose most recent book, SPECTACLE, gained her a rapturous following.
MACHINE revolves around a group of teenagers—both locals and wealthy out-of-towners— during a single summer at the shore. Steinberg captures the pressures and demands of this world in a voice that effortlessly slides from collective to singular, as one girl recounts a night on which another girl drowned. Hoping to assuage her guilt and evade a similar fate, she pieces together the details of this tragedy, as well as the breakdown of her own family, and learns that no one, not even she, is blameless.
Susan Steinberg is the author of SPECTACLE, HYDROPLANE, and THE END OF FREE LOVE. She is the recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.
A daring stylist, Steinberg contrasts semicolon-studded sentences with short lines that race down the page. This restless approach gains focus and power through a sharply drawn narrative that ferociously interrogates gender, class, privilege, and the disintegration of identity in the shadow of trauma. MACHINE is the kind of novel—relentless and bold—that only Susan Steinberg could have written.
“This singular first novel from Steinberg (Spectacle) has the elements of crime fiction: a seaside setting with a dark underbelly, a family torn apart by infidelity, the tragic death of a beautiful young girl. But Steinberg makes the familiar story new, in part, by deconstructing her elements: “I’ll say the setting is the boathouse; the setting is a washroom; the setting: night and summer.” The book begins with an unnamed narrator, the rebellious young daughter of a successful businessman, standing near the water at the shore: “we all knew of the girl who drowned,” she relates, “she sank like a stone, they said; she was showing off that night, they said; the guys all said.” Though the girl’s death has little direct bearing on the narrator’s main story, it’s emblematic of the uneasy tone Steinberg establishes and becomes a dark motif for the events that follow. With the summer drawing to a close, the narrator recounts her wild vacation: the tenuous connection she had to the dead girl, desires she doesn’t understand, her disturbed brother’s increasingly reckless behavior, her father’s flagrant affair and insistence that she keep it a secret, her rage at the other woman, building finally to her family coming apart. What makes this tale so thrilling is Steinberg’s artistry with form; she fractures narrative into its fundamental parts. Steinberg writes prose with a poet’s sense of meter and line, and a velocity recalling the novels of Joan Didion. The result is a dizzying work that perfectly evokes the feeling of spinning out of control.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review