Sarah Steinberg’s first collection of short fiction reads as a group of episodes or vignettes: brief and sparse, but nevertheless engaging. While her play with form tends to stay relatively close to conventional story structure, Steinberg exhibits a diverse range of narrative tones. The pieces move from the voice of a child to the unbroken dialogue of a bookstore manager’s training sessions. The collection’s final story is written in the second person and manages to be one of the most emotionally touching: “You woke at dawn, his elbow tucked neatly under your trachea, the length of his forearm pressed firmly down onto your chest. You made as if to scream but didn’t and instead you closed your eyes. He stopped. Shhh, he whispered, and stroked your hair. Shhh, real peoples, he said. Real peoples, okay? It is the nicest thing he’s ever said to you.” In deliberately alternating between various styles of narration, We Could Be Like That Couple… borders on becoming fragmented, which is only augmented by Steinberg’s bare prose.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell if the stilted narration is intentional in the name of tone or minimalist artistry, or if moments of over-exposition are accidental. Though the weighty subtext of the stories — undecided sexuality, the crushing reality of cancer — is sometimes not as fully articulated as the author’s sharply rendered portraits of hidden reality suggest is possible, the collection is undoubtedly populated by imaginative and unique characters with painfully tragic and funny character flaws: a ballerina with a salt addiction, a hopelessly in love undergraduate with a lisp. Steinberg’s invocation of extreme characteristics indicates a keen post-modern sensibility about people’s weird, private preoccupations.
Depictions of the extreme ultimately become a commentary on the familiar, and the collection offers up the kind of wit and casual humour needed to survive the everyday. Characters prone to self-deception occur repeatedly throughout, manipulating their perception of the world to better suit their needs in attempts to make it through the day — after all, in a culture overrun with constructed narratives, what difference does it make if we tell a story about ourselves? So, it’s a funny little book with a pretty cool cover about some very strange people. It’s deceptively casual and you may have to, you know, work a little to get into the narrative, but hey — you’ll feel a little less strange yourself by comparison. (Katelynn Schoop)
by Sarah Steinberg, Insomniac Press, 136 pgs, $21.50, 192 Spadina Avenue, Suite 403, Toronto, ON, M5T 2C2