Fiction writers, Susan Steinberg has always told her students, shouldn’t feel they have to produce a novel. The author of three unconventional story collections, she vowed she never would. She has now broken this rule and, in the process, many others, too—not that she needs to apologize. Her slim narrative of adolescent crisis is as propulsive as it is disorienting, subverting expectations at every turn.
Machine’s plot outline suggests a gripping beach read. During a summer at the shore (location unspecified), teenagers (unnamed) run wild. The risk-avid cruelty among the girls and guys spools out in the shadow of two traumas—the drowning of a local girl and the breakup of the female narrator’s well-off parents. What happened that night down at the dock where the privileged summer kids get trashed? When and how is the parental infidelity going to be exposed?
Yet from the start, Steinberg’s daring experiments with style and perspective make clear that such stock suspense isn’t the point. The narrator’s real quest is to discover whether a soul—hers, if it exists—can be saved. She often speaks as a “we,” bound in corrosive intimacy to another girl as they navigate the predatory peer scene. When the “I” detaches herself, her voice is by turns incantatory, meditative, vengeful—lyrical yet bitter. Summer uplift, this is not: The epiphany she fears is that the soul is just “some scared thing that leaves the body when the body needs it most.”