Writing in the Spaces Where Lives Touch: Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman

by Nour Abi-Nakhoul

Nour Abi-Nakhoul is a writer from Montreal. Her work has appeared in New York’sThe Cut, Chatelaine, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

A Dream of a Woman
Casey Plett
Arsenal Pulp Press
2021, 278 pp., $21.95

 

To dream is to weave together a world, stitching together disparate phenomena into odd, arbitrary patterns. Casey Plett’s newest collection of short stories, A Dream of a Woman, is similarly concerned with fraught connections: the inexplicable links that bring people together.

The collection marks Plett’s third book, following the short story collection A Safe Girl to Love and the novel Little Fish. As an author who writes within the paradigm of trans literature, Plett frequently applies her focus to trans women. Her new book is no exception. However, these women’s stories aren’t tales of transness and transition in the typical sense; rather than focus on the typical understanding of transition—as an individual’s journey through personal discovery and self-becoming—Plett instead places her literary focus on the spaces in between people. Through the collection, trans women do transition, discover themselves, better themselves. But what takes precedence over their individual journeys is the ways these women relate to each other, cisgender people, their pasts, and the world around them; and the ways all these relationships shape and change their lives. Fundamentally, the stories captured in A Dream of a Woman are stories of the haphazard ways human lives intersect and intertwine.

… Rather than focus on the typical understanding of transition—as an individual’s journey through personal discovery and self-becoming—Plett instead places her literary focus on the spaces in between people.

A Dream of a Woman prioritizes the social in three ways: through the style of its prose, the structure of its stories, and the content of its narratives. Stylistically, Plett sculpts her narratives flowingly and conversationally, in a way that resembles oral storytelling. This isn’t to say that they are written simplistically or without poetic flair, but rather that they are shaped with a powerful sociality which makes them near and real. These are the stories told in a bar on a cool night, when the hour has run late and your typically-reserved friend can no longer hold back their raw sentimentality. This conspiratorial nearness magnifies the characters and their feelings, bringing the reader in closer to the movements of their lives.

Structurally, the book’s seven stories weave together in an atypical way, like conversations at a party that you move away from and then return to again. The longest in the set, “Obsolution,” is cut into five parts distributed between other stories. Another, “Couldn’t Hear You Talk Anymore,” is similarly cleaved in two. “Perfect Places” and “Rose City, City of Roses” revolve around the same character at different points in her life, the second story taking the form of a letter she writes to a friend who has died. The way narratives and characters are left and re-visited emphasizes, again, the stories’ quality of nearness—the reader is coaxed into familiarity until the characters’ tales are close to the heart.

These are the stories told in a bar on a cool night, when the hour has run late and your typically-reserved friend can no longer hold back their raw sentimentality.

These oscillating departures and returns also mirror and fortify the narrative’s focus on tenuous social connections. In “Hazel & Christopher,” childhood friends drift apart and lose one another, only to spontaneously meet again later in life. The many parts of “Obsolution” track a relationship’s many different phases over the course of a decade, and “Rose City, City of Roses” describes the same characters’ accidental run-ins two years apart.

A Dream of a Woman being firmly rooted in the fragility and randomness of social reality shapes the trajectory of the stories towards convolution and intricacy. Plett’s writing is interested in people in all of their living, breathing multiplicity; thus the characters and their movements through life are given space to expand in their contradictions and incoherency. The sometimes difficult truths of being human are interrogated closely: readers are obliged to look at how people’s values and feelings frequently rub up against each other, and at all the ways people try to resolve those tensions. We are asked to examine how people’s wounds and insecurities clash, causing pain and miscommunication regardless of intent.

Plett’s characters breathe and shift, meet and grow together, hurt one another, betray their values and smooth over conflicts. They elude being defined as any one singular thing.

Away from the Instagram Infographic Industrial Complex, Plett’s stories aren’t interested in perpetuating the narcissist-versus-empath dichotomy. Through the book, as in real life, nothing is ever so simple as a tragedy or as convenient as an irreconcilable end. Plett’s characters breathe and shift, meet and grow together, hurt one another, betray their values and smooth over conflicts. They elude being defined as any one singular thing. This can be a special thing for characters who are trans women. These characters are not impoverished tragedies or ever-suffering victims, not immoral monsters nor depraved hedonists. They are many things and nothing at all—nothing other than people trying to carve out lives for themselves that they can feel satisfied about.

Carving out lives is meant in an active tense: the characters in this collection are constantly surveying their lives and reflecting on their place in the world, asking themselves whether it’s enough for them. In “Couldn’t Hear You Talk Anymore,” the protagonist muses on her desire to create a life that’s agreeable to her, while in “Enough Trouble” a woman consciously imagines potential futures and then takes tangible steps towards them. This way of conscientiously examining one’s own life and reflecting on its alignment with one’s values and needs resonates with a trans view of the world. Trans people by necessity engage in stringent self-reflection and self-interrogation, constantly shifting their selves and lives towards increased alignment with what they want and need. Plett’s characters use this sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness to look not just at transition, but at life itself.

Plett’s characters use this sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness to look not just at transition, but at life itself.

Through this book’s intense sociality, the idea of community occasionally rises to the surface, that frustrating concept that can haunt in its vagueness and malleability. Within A Dream of a Woman, the idea takes on a relatively straightforward scope: namely, the feelings of mutual understanding and sense of responsibility you have towards those charting similar paths. In “Obsolution,” the protagonist learns to seek out relationships with other trans women to take solace from the discomfort she feels with cis people. “Enough Trouble” takes place between three nebulously connected trans women in an apartment. The relationships between trans women in community with one another are frequently depicted as healing or productive, but not always; “Couldn’t Hear You Talk Anymore” expresses how community can be a source of joy as well as of destruction, as a character struggles to keep her boundaries intact under the pressure of the responsibility she feels for other trans women.

With A Dream of the Woman Casey Plett shapes stories that have both a joyful interest in the frailty of social connection and a firm resistance to emotional simplicity or straightforward narratives. Readers are quietly tugged into stories that have the intimacy and curiosity of friendly gossip, matched with a dedication to detail that breathes life and fire into the movements of the characters, who remain in one’s mind afterwards like distant, drifted friends still recalled with fondness.



Nour Abi-Nakhoul is a writer from Montreal. Her work has appeared in New York’sThe Cut, Chatelaine, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

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