Review: Machine by Susan Steinberg

“at times you want to ask for forgiveness; but you don’t know forgiveness from what; and you don’t know who you’re asking it from; but at times you feel like you’ve done something wrong; you feel the need to be absolved;”

Machine – published by Pushkin Press ONE, August 6th 2020

A haunting story of guilt and blame in the wake of a drowning, the first novel by the author of Spectacle

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.

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.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Incredible prose, wonderful structure, slightly too vague maybe..

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A girl is dead. She died by drowning at night while the rich kids kept partying on around her. This event is one of many that make the main character’s summer one that chances everything about her life. Still, the dead girl is incidental to the central narrative, even though it grounds the book as main character cannot seem to see outside her own head. Set during the summer in a coastal town, this book deals with trauma and privilege and guilt and toxic masculinity.

The book is told mostly in short, fragmented sentences, seperated from each other by semi-colons – and for me this prose choice made the book compulsively readable and stronger than it would have otherwise been. I am a sucker for interesting stylistic choices and for books told unchronologically – which this was, going backward and forward in time, talking about things that happened or that could have happened or that might still happen. This is not a book for everyone – but it was very much my kind of thing. The characters are all deeply, deeply unlikable and as we stay closely in the unnamed narrator’s head, nobody except for her is fully fleshed out. The book remains vague but purposefully so – for me this worked because I always felt like the author knew what she was doing. I trusted her to lead me through the labyrinthian narrative and I thought she stuck the landing in a way that made this a very satisfying reading experience.

Content warnings: death by drowning, drug abuse, underage drinking, sexual assault, domestic abuse, psychological abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.