A Story of Memory: Machine by Susan Steinberg
Most writers have, at some point, taken a deep breath and heeded the age-old advice: Take it one sentence at a time. It’s simple guidance—easy to follow, and ripe with metaphor.
Of course for readers this advice comes second nature. When the magic of the fictional dream is working, it’s impossible to pinpoint at which precise line a character earns our sympathy, or a landscape becomes fully visible in our minds. I am guilty, often, of reading paragraph by paragraph, sometimes scene by scene. When a novel nears a point of emotional intensity, I sometimes can’t help but flip forward to the point of resolution before then working backward and forcing myself to live longer in the tension.
Susan Steinberg’s debut novel Machine inspires no such desire and offers no such relief. It’s a book that demands to be read slowly, line by line, even clause by clause, like a poem. To read it any differently would be a sort of betrayal—and anyway, to skip ahead would bring you little sense of resolution, for in this novel, resolution is hardly the point. As with Steinberg’s previous book, Spectacle, form dictates every aspect of the reading experience: one is compelled to stop after every burst of prose and trace the routes Steinberg has mapped in invisible ink.
Machine is a story of memory, and one in particular: A local girl drowns one summer, and an unnamed narrator, a wealthy teenager whose family drives from the city to the shore every year, cannot stop herself from remembering it. The cast of characters is small. There is the narrator, her mother, her manipulative father, her troubled brother, and her brother’s menacing friend. There are “the girls” and “the guys,” privileged seasonal visitors like the narrator who gather on the dock and in the boathouse to party despite their parents’ feeble protests. There are the locals, who mostly hang out on the jetty and curse the out-of-towners. None of the people involved can (or will) say what exactly happened the night the local girl drowned. But the question of who is at fault spurs a nuanced exploration of privilege, power, guilt, and salvation.
The procedurals of the police investigation are largely relegated to the periphery. We learn that the girl who died was found in only her underwear. She was the only local girl in the bunch. The out-of-towner boys say the girl had gotten “too wild” that night, and claim she fell from the dock and drowned. The fathers of the boys will only say, in so many words, that whatever happened, the girl was asking for it. The mothers say little, except that they want to save their daughters, to keep them away from the docks where much of the summer’s partying takes place. The narrator cannot help but put herself in the dead girl’s place:
one night, we were on the dock, and there she was, holding a shoe in each hand; my father says she wasn’t bright; and she wasn’t, if you think of bright as top of your class; but if you think of bright, instead, as light; she was laughing out her words; something about some guys acting wild on the jetty; I could see her remember how wild they were; I could see her through the guys’ eyes, my father’s eyes; that night, I became her shadow, and she never even knew.
Through the girl, the narrator sees herself—her privilege, her fear, her indulgences, her compulsiveness, her complicity, and, of course, the gaze fixed upon her. Using both the incantatory “I” voice of the singular narrator and the sinister collective “we” voice of the girls, Steinberg builds a character who is at turns impulsive, violent, seductive, critical, reckless, regretful, and vulnerable. The slim novel cycles through memories of this teenager’s experiences on the shore. The times she sat at the bowling alley drinking beer with the employees, local boys who served her even though she was underage. (“This was because of how I looked; I didn’t care what the reason was; I was learning to work with what I had.”) Or the time she and the other girls witnessed the drowned girl’s violent bike crash on the boardwalk. Here, the narrator freezes the awkward, gory scene and, with equal parts fear and disgust‚ spotlights the girls’ collective lack of concern: “We’re not the saviors in this story; we would have let her die there.”
The narrator’s family life is fractured. She is pulled, by her mother, from private school in the city—an act meant to help her “build character.” But then when she’s caught sneaking on the roof of the public school to smoke with a boy, her mother gets furious and re-enrolls her in private school again. The narrator witnesses her father’s infidelity, a traumatic scene that she cannot stop reliving. She numbly chronicles her brother’s mental breakdown—what she calls his “short-circuiting.” There is little room in this story for wholesome family fun.
Machine is a 3D Magic Eye illustration of a novel: perplexing patterns begin to reveal a hidden image when you stare hard through the maze and slowly step away. Each chapter—some consisting of a single, pages-long block paragraph, others bursts of breathless prose connected by semicolons, as if part of the same long confession—spirals, pulses, and flickers around a memory, an idea, a confrontation. Each sentence crackles with careful suggestion; each and every statement of fact submits itself for subversion. “We tend not to swim at night,” the narrator says in the book’s opening paragraph. “No,” she corrects herself, “we tend not to swim at night with guys.” Later on, she recounts an uncomfortable conversation about the accident with her father and her brother: “I mean we’re talking about a girl who drowned. But we’re talking without any feeling. So I’m not yet feeling is what I’m saying.”
The narrator is simultaneously processing her trauma and modulating how she wants her memories received. “I think I prayed,” she admits, recounting a questionable memory of a time she rode a boardwalk ride with the girl who drowned. “I mean I know I prayed to someone; I mean I was saying something to someone, begging for something, believing in something else.”
The book doesn’t bring us to any definitive understanding of the tragic events in question. But we do begin to understand a little bit about that summer, a truth that is bound by necessity to remain incomplete:
this is a story about salvation; but that doesn’t mean this girl was saved; and it doesn’t mean that we were saved; or that anyone was, or ever would be; it only means that something, in this moment, needed saving
The narrator is trapped here, in the summer her family and her life fell apart. She is not particularly kind to herself in retrospect. This summer is one she must reckon with for the rest of her days.
“But how hard it is,” she muses, “to fully shed the fucked-up thing you’ve always been.”
Perhaps the most gripping thread in Machine is the complicated gendered violence that lurks throughout. The narrator likes to seem “terrifying” to the other girls, but to the guys, she likes to seem “small and weak.” When she seeks out her brother’s friend and lets him pin her to the grass, she immediately detaches, disassociates. “I often imagine a life just wandering around,” she says as soon as she is pinned. “I imagine living in boats or in trees or riding trains across the world.”
Her desire, in moments like these, is for weightlessness. To exist outside her body in a place that is hers and hers alone, a place where she can be both powerful and protected. “It was a secret I had, my mind going out to some too cold place, some too hot place,” the narrator reveals during a sexual encounter when she loses herself in the cosmos, orbiting planets in outer space. “I admit I got off on the secret.”
Clearly the entire social ecosystem of the shore is fraught, and Steinberg seems to suggest that everyone is complicit. “We were addicted to being scared,” the narrator admits in a rumination on her privilege. “We wanted so much that feeling of something coming to get us.”
It’s through deft maneuvers of language—sudden deflections, corrections, and subversions—that Steinberg lays bare the raw conflicts at the heart of Machine: desire and disgust; lust and fear; power and helplessness; youthful adventure and cold-eyed adult regret; physical violence and disembodied escape. The guys and the girls, the city and the shore. The book is difficult to categorize, even to summarize, because it raises complicated tensions and resists easy answers. Steinberg first presents truths, then corrects those truths, then qualifies for whom the truth applies. Then she splinters that truth with redirection and substitution, as if to say, No, you’re reading this all wrong. Look here, not here. Look at yourself, your own life, the images you yourself are bringing to the page.
Above all, Steinberg is interested in pointing out at every turn the fickle nature of memory, and thus of collective truth. Our memories are obfuscated, compromised, biased even by our own projections, the stories we want to craft ourselves to fill gaps that form naturally with time. By the end of Machine, one isn’t so interested in what exactly happened that night on the dock. A police report might solve the mystery of the girl’s death, but it wouldn’t help us understand it, the latent violence that led to it, why the guys and girls—the narrator, at least—will forever harbor an unshakable sense of guilt and shame.
“There’s no point in building her character here,” Steinberg’s narrator says at one point of the girl who drowned. “No point in building the perfect girl you always want; so here’s any girl holding her shoes; any girl looking like some kind of ghost.”
Sentence by surprising sentence, phrase by poetic phrase, Steinberg tells a kaleidoscope of a story—not just of a ghost, but of a haunting.