“Jessica Treat’s collection of short stories Not a Chance beams with a consistent tonal quality, a Hemingway-esque use of language, and narrators who seem to relay a curiously similar impulsive personality from story to story. Despite the various forms the narrator takes within these stories, the tales maintain a somewhat surreal atmosphere, are often disturbing, and appear to speak directly to and include the reader within its strange actions.
Our combined review is a compilation of several e-mail conversations we had about Not a Chance.
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Daphne Potts: It seemed clear that though each of the characters within the collection of short stories ventured beyond the realm of normal behavior, it was essential to the story that Treat was attempting to present. Because the increments with which the narrators move toward unacceptable behavior (i.e., laying down in your neighbor’s bed, driving off in someone else’s car, walking off with someone else’s dog) are small and acceptable in some way in the baby steps before the actual action, Treat seems to illustrate a dreamlike world in which our will takes on its own persona and those desires maintain themselves. For example, many people might imagine having a relationship with a neighbor going to another level of intimacy after sharing a beer, and perhaps, even wondering what might have become of the person had they not seen them for days afterward.
However, walking into that apartment, sitting down, and falling asleep are the steps which go beyond what we think of as actual behavior.
The tales seem to illustrate what might happen if you did continue thinking in an imaginary way and followed through with those fantasies as realized actions, as opposed to turning around when realizing that you have driven off in someone else’s car, or ceasing the fantasy of intriguing a man by taking his dog before actually doing it. The protagonists sometimes seem to be on some sort of automatic pilot, doing simply what impulses drive them to do.
Valerie MacEwan: The narrators, all American women, seem to distance themselves from reality and fantasy. They behave on impulse and create reality from fantasy. The women in Treat’s stories make you squirm. Their obsessive acts are truly dreamlike but the alienated souls in each story aren’t working from within a dream structure. They truly act out their thoughts and then justify their actions to themselves.
I’m thinking of post-feminism as I read this. The women in Treat’s book are allowed unconventional behavior and they convince themselves that what they are doing is sane and just. In the first part of the novella, Honda, the narrator stalks a man and steals his dog. I’m reminded of that truly lame David Spade movie, the one where he kidnaps the neighbor’s dog so he can spend time with the owner. Reverse the gender and have the woman kidnapper realize caring for a dog is a real pain in the ass and she doesn’t like the dog she’s stolen. She hits the dog with a stick, the dog jerks free and runs back toward town.
“‘You retard!’ I shouted after her. ‘So go home! See what I care!’ knowing it made no difference at all to her. She was hot for her muffin man, her Pseudo-Hunter, her Worn-Down-on-the-Heel but very rich owner. I cursed them both; if it hadn’t been for the pair of them, I’d be nice and cozy at home, curled up in a blanket and sleeping. I was saying this to myself, thinking out loud as I went along, when I saw him. I slid back into the shrubbery which lined the trail, crouched behind a thick bush. I don’t believe he noticed.”
Then the narrator convinces herself she didn’t steal the dog. She tells herself a gang of boys with horrible intentions, thoughts of animal abuse, stole the dog and she rescued it. She convinces herself that the man/owner owes her for “saving” the dog.
“‘But the Mr. and his dog were too far away by now; I couldn’t reach them even by running wildly. And in any case, I didn’t feel like running.’”
She gives up her rescue fantasy.
Each story, each narrator, exhibits this type of behavior: obsessive, disturbing acts followed by an explanation of how it was someone else’s fault. But I find myself compelled, obsessed even, with finding out the narrator’s next act.
Potts: In some ways I agree with your statements, though I find myself reading on while holding my breath, hoping and praying the narrator won’t do what I’m so sure s/he will. I’m almost hiding, slouching down and barely peeking at the words, as if I were watching a person in an extremely uncomfortable situation. These women are impulsive, and seem to lack social boundaries, making the reader extremely conscious of the presence of said boundaries. I think that’s what’s interesting about Treat’s work here.
Initially, it’s very difficult to go beyond the acts alone that the narrators partake in, but suddenly as a reader, you begin to realize that what is disturbing is not so much the boundaries the narrators breach, but instead the boundaries that we have.
These boundaries and our consciousness of them are illustrated in each of Treat’s stories, but seem particularly clear in one entitled Nicaraguan Birds. This short story focuses on a young married woman and her relationship with a friend her husband disapproves of for her political views. The friend actually plays the position that most narrators hold in Treat’s work: seemingly impulsive and constantly moving towards something they desire. However, in this story, Treat has reversed the positions of her characters, as the narrator is somewhat normal and not particularly given to acting out whims.
It’s nearly boring, really. While in the other short stories in this collection we find ourselves wishing the narrators would stop, in this we beg her to do something, anything. She’s thinking of running away to join her friend in Nicaragua, and I find myself hoping she will just for a change in scenery. And her husband’s fairly obnoxious, to say the least, so that seems another reason to go. She packs her suitcase - we’re on the brink of believing this is another impulsive woman—but then she discovers that her friend would like her to become more politically educated in order to help her cause. So narrator puts her suitcase in the closet and goes on with her life.
This narrator’s nearly ordinary thoughts and ordinary life highly contrast with the thoughts and lives of the other narrators. Not only are we conscious within the individual stories that social boundaries are an issue, but in this one particularly, because it seems to break a pattern, it stands out clearly as an example of these boundaries of which we’re so aware.
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MacEwan: It’s safe to say that we truly enjoyed this collection of short stories. I thought of the collection as a brief glimpse into the surreal. I felt I was being allowed a chance to view the world from “inside a character’s skin.” The exercise was both disturbing and compelling. I wanted to read more and felt short-changed when I came to the last page. Jessica Treat is certainly an extremely accomplished storyteller.
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