Jeff Bursey Reviews Acting on the Island
Acting on the Island
As I type this first line of my review of JJ Steinfeld’s short-story collection Acting on the Island I’m aware that, as with many writers, I’m in the process of becoming another figure in Steinfeld’s world—a shadow figure, more precisely, found on the shady side of a quiet street with a few other reviewers around—and that every word set down in Atlantic Books Today will become, given enough time and unspecified distance, an extension of Steinfeld, and that this review will be slipped into one or another category, summed up as he loves my writing, he loves it not, all subtlety shucked, leaving a core that merges with past (mis)representations of his work by other hands over his long and esteemed career, losing any individuality, transformed from one reader’s response into the loam, or the lore, writers fabricate around the reception of their works, underscored by the knowledge, in the words of Joel in “Hanukkah/Godot/Christmas,” that “so many of the people he met were… potential characters, material to be mined.”
My opinion about the stories in Acting on the Island is based on their craft, that is, from an aesthetic point of view. Did this work well, did that conceit amuse, was that line a neat one, is this absurdist story a good fit for the material or a bit tight in the tailoring? None of those questions would be acceptable if voiced aloud to the author.
Yet the features that provoke this line of interrogation are far more prominent than mere plot or characterization, since those things are easily dispensed with. But if I approach the content of this book more on the intellectual level than the empathetic it’s partly because of me, but mostly because of Steinfeld’s preference for such an approach. He puts me in mind—the “he” is always the persona of the author, not the flesh-and-blood person often seen walking briskly through downtown Charlottetown—of a doorman in front of the open doors outside an institute, built in a vaguely European Modernist style, titled The Museum of Melancholy, adorned with gargoyles, exaggerations of the features of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, and this doorman nervously dry-washing his hands tells inquiring visitors, “No, it’s not open, not really, but come back another day, maybe tomorrow, and look, down the street is a deli with delicious toasted cheese sandwiches and beers of all kinds, you’ll like that more,” hands now flapping in a courteous but determined go away gesture, only to wonder later why no one persists and comes back. In that museum are rooms called, for example, “Godot’s Leafless Tree,” that has this vignette the unnamed male narrator tells of, and on, his mother:
An affair, she whispered, with her little remaining strength, that lasted nearly ten years, and he broke it off, not her. I was an infant when she heard that her ex-convict had died. Died of natural causes. In his sleep. But alone. Alone in a stark, barren, airless room.
Is that meant to be affecting? We all die alone, so there’s nothing special there. Did he die in a room? Yes, but in his sleep, so where was his mind in his last moments? In dreams? Is dying in your dreams a bad way to go? In such a situation, does the external environment matter? So many pebbles underfoot in that one passage that I remain untouched. The rooms in the Museum of Melancholy, created out of trauma, are filled with potential emotions, but they are curated with tell-all labels outside that prevent an immersive experience.
Many rooms are connected to the Holocaust or of being a child born in a Displaced Persons Camp of Polish-Jewish parents and finding oneself in Canada, in Prince Edward Island specifically (the Island of the title), where such events would have had the closeness of newspaper stories when (and if) first reported. Any number of characters’ attempts to get through a sad or lonely (usually both) life.
The words of the stories are like that doorman and the most we get a glimpse of the exterior. Isaac, in “The Heart,” thinks that if he told a particular woman about the nightmares he has, “that he was a concentration camp inmate alongside his suffering parents, and [that he] moved from city to city to create new, safe identities, always without success,” then he would know comfort from a yielding female, yet a narrative hand undercuts empathy by showing Isaac’s obnoxious behaviour.
All this is acceptable behaviour on Steinfeld’s part, for an author can choose the level of intimacy with a persona that is most comfortable or best suited to the material. Julian in “The Semblance of Eternity on a Hot Summer’s Afternoon” re-enacts trauma one afternoon, “sitting alone at an outdoor table in front of a downtown Charlottetown café” ostensibly recovering from a hangover, when Hitler sits at his table. I might feel some sympathy if he hadn’t already been established as a tiresome individual.
Trauma and seeping anxiety are everywhere in this collection about isolates. The editor of JJ Steinfeld: Essays on His Works (2017), Sandra Singer, states that Steinfeld’s “fiction can be interpreted as initially explicitly and later subtly depicting historical and second generation trauma.” The emotions that fill the rooms of his museum of memories of Island stories (if not Island life) look to be too powerful and overwhelming for the author to depict in full; we are administered drops instead of being carried along by a cataract. This collection withholds a gut punch and is all the more melancholy for that.
It seems fitting to end this review with an awareness of JJ Steinfeld’s feelings, this time transmitted through another unnamed male narrator who is speaking fondly, and sadly, of his elder and dead brother: “Heaven knows he wanted people to understand him, but I suppose it wasn’t possible. This was one of the things that made him weary.”