Friday, March 15, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 11

Lori Ostlund on Jessica Treadway's PLEASE COME BACK TO ME

I prefer to write about work that slightly intimidates me, that leaves me feeling both that I could never quite do justice to it and that I would very much like to try—which is why I chose to review Jessica Treadway's collection Please Come Back To Me. The collection is made up of seven stories and a novella. Treadway touches on a variety of themes—family and the tensions that often exist at its core; the tenuousness of memory; and the suddenness with which tragedy can hit (one’s husband drives drunk and kills someone, a son is accused of an unsettling crime), taking one in a direction neither imagined nor planned for.

I first read the book shortly after it was released in the fall of 2010, and I remember feeling, as I read, that Treadway and I should be friends, by which I simply mean that the things that we want from a book are often the same things that we want from friendships—to be intellectually stimulated, to discover a way of seeing the world that reframes the way that we currently see it rather than just reflecting our view, and to feel pleasure in the other’s presence. In rereading Please Come Back To Me, I felt all of these things all over again, the experience this time one of reuniting with an old friend and feeling that same kinship.

I was struck, again, by the utter precision with which Treadway writes. As a reader, I like feeling that the writer has done the necessary work—has chosen each word with care, has forged each sentence to convey precisely what the author means to say rather than lazily getting close enough. There is no way to cover everything about Treadway’s book that impresses or delights, so instead I will meander through some its pleasing particulars. Let’s begin with Treadway’s details and observations, which are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes both. Since the joy in reading begins at the local level of the sentence, let me point out one of my favorites. In “Oregon,” a story about a relationship between two friends who assign different meaning to the friendship, Treadway succinctly establishes the power imbalance in this way: “Elizabeth…dialed Deborah’s number, which she felt embarrassed to know by heart (because surely Deborah would have to open her own address book to locate Elizabeth).”

Sometimes, memories populate Treadway’s stories in such a way that they reveal a fissure in the character’s present life, becoming the “do-over” moment that the character fixates on and which defines his or her regret. This is the case in one of my favorite stories, “Dear Nicole,” in which twelve-year-old Gerald accidentally knocks out a girl with a hockey puck and, in the way of such things, goes on to marry her. The story is set in the present-day of his marriage: he and his wife, Nicole, have two children, and over the years, Gerald has come to see the truth about his wife—that she lacks compassion and generosity of spirit, that he was blinded by guilt and a misplaced sense of responsibility, that this marriage (i.e., that accident) has robbed him of the life he should have had. When another spectator from that evening, a girl named Allie who was sitting next to Nicole and was nearly hit instead, resurfaces, joking in a letter that the puck and thus Gerald were meant for her, Gerald becomes fixated on the accident. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of parallel lives—that is, the notion that our lives could have gone in a dramatically different direction but for a certain moment or decision. Through the image of the hockey puck, soaring through the night air, Treadway traces the arc of just such an event: “There was a moment during which they all lost time—they knew the puck was flying somewhere, but they couldn’t see it.”

Perhaps all writers are intrigued by memory, by the way that fictionalizing something autobiographical, for example, alters forever our memory of what really happened. We all know, that is, that memories and truth are fluid. In my favorite story in the collection, “Testimony,” Maxine has gone to help her sister Tillie with her new baby. Tillie has, with the assistance of a therapist, recently recalled childhood sexual abuse at the hands of their father. Maxine knows that she is wrong and does not want to talk about it or even think about. Instead, she thinks about the goats:
They’d been given the goats the spring Maxine was eleven and Tillie nine. Tillie went by Tildra now; she corrected anyone who tried to use the nickname, even Maxine, which Maxine considered cheeky because she was here, after all, to do her sister a favor. But back then, in upstate Crete, New York, they had been Max and Tillie and didn’t think twice about what they were called. Together they settled on the names Pete and Smiley for the two goats, which their father had waiting as a surprise in a pen he’d built behind the garage.
When these goats escape and die on the highway, their father brings home yet another goat, this one named Clover. Clover lives a week before succumbing to Vitamin E deficiency. For Maxine, the goats are a symbol of her childhood—of her father’s love as well as a simpler time with her sister, a time before her sister became Tildra and began remembering repressed memories. We soon learn that Tildra does not remember the goats, but this is to be expected. She is angry at Maxine for her disloyalty.

As readers, we imagine that the story might be about false memories. Instead, we get this: the father does not remember the goats either. Everything crumbles—our trust in Maxine’s version of the past, our sense of the story. Rather than moving toward clarity, Treadway leaves us stuck in the muddiness of memory. As a writer, what I am particularly in awe of is the goats. Treadway understood that everything hinged on them, on having details of a memory so unusual, so well-sketched, that to doubt it seemed not even a consideration—three dead goats with names.


Lori Ostlund is the author of THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD (2009). She has taught in Spain, Malaysia, and New Mexico and currently lives and teaches in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Hobart.