by Rebecca Weaver
Not a Chance, Jessica Treat's second collection of fictions, is catapulted by its characters. These off-kilter characters constantly blur the lines between imagination/reality and sanity/insanity because they are rendered with amazing accuracy, detail, and even compassion.
Many of Treat's characters aren't aware of the world around them—or of their own memories—quite enough to make sense of their lives. When they do something, they don't know if they actually did it or dreamed it, which can become quite problematic. In the story "Radio Disturbance," a voice on the radio reminds Julia of her ex-therapist, who owned a house in Connecticut. Having gleaned her therapist's address from the receipts of their sessions, Julia then "dreamed" that she went to the therapist's home, yet described the contents of a linen closet in that home with such detail during a session that Julia could see said therapist doing a mental inventory of such a closet.
The line between reality and imagination is an obsession in this collection. With a nervous laugh, Treat's readers are forced to confront questions such as: what is imaginary about what is real? And what is real about what's imagined? In "Not a Chance," the main character tells the story of a friend's affair. Because the cuckolded husband pleads with her to help him, and because she's been given her friend's forgotten notebook, the narrator embarks on a journey to find her disappeared friend. She tries to imagine her friend's affair, and spends so much energy in this act that by the end of the story, the two women begin to merge. Treat's use of language as the point of entry between worlds is evident as the merger appears: "I still had her notebook and every so often I lifted the cover to stare at its scrawled pages, as if its contents weren't already etched into me . . ."
Though there is simple enjoyment in reading this collection, Treat demands close attention as well—readers must be careful not to miss the sentences that effectively deepen and charge the story. For example, "Dead End," though different from the others in voice, shows Treat's mastery at subtlety, her ability to slip important details into the narrative. It is a letter written to "Jacobo," the narrator's ex-boyfriend, one which tells him at the beginning that he's being watched. As the story progresses, readers discover that Jacobo is being watched by an assassin the writer has hired, but that fact becomes less and less surprising the more we read: "I go to none of the restaurants we went to together, not that one in midtown where you suddenly showered parmesan cheese on my head (why, I can't remember, but of course not before you'd chanted, 'you understand nothing!')."
In the novella "Honda"—roughly a third of the collection—Melanie Maddox is a wildly dysfunctional freak. First she steals a dog. Then she "mistakenly" steals a Honda that looks like her own and invents for herself a son named Honda. Every person that Melanie encounters she transmutes into influential people from her past. For example, she uses an elderly woman's phone and since the woman reminds her of her first grade teacher, the woman (in Melanie's mind) becomes that teacher. Melanie even goes as far as to write a letter to the woman and ask her to sign herself as "Mrs. Barlow": "p.s. I hope that when you write me, you'll sign your real name, Mrs. Barlow. I can't help preferring it."
Melanie's voice is one of absolute self-delusion: as much as she expresses confusion about why her life has become the mess it is, that same voice enunciates many reasons. After hitting a crow and running out of gas, Melanie is picked up by Vicky, who's immediately made into "Miss Vicky," another former teacher. Later in the book, Melanie is accused of harassment by Vicky. Here Treat's skill at powerful understatement rises to hilarious effect:
. . . accusing me of harassment: I was lurking about on her property, spying on her, phoning and then hanging up on her—she had all sorts of amusing and not-so amusing theories about me. I might have laughed (why would I want to hang around that swamp she lived next to? That spooky lake, her house that looked like an architectural nightmare?).
It would be easy to think of Treat's novella and the other stories here as fun to read because we readers like to think that we will never be as insane, confused, or pathetic as the characters in Not a Chance. Yet that's the beautiful danger of these stories and Treat's telling of them: How do we really know that we'll never cross that blurry line between sanity and insanity?
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001