Casey Plett is the author of the novel Little Fish, and the short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love. Her second collection of short fiction, A Dream of a Woman, is a powerful blend of stories and perspectives.
Plett’s voice is strong and fully realized in this collection. The language is tight and matter-of-fact, but also beautiful and sweeping in a way that makes you forget it’s there. Plett wields language masterfully to share many vastly different trans experiences with readers. The stories in this book are at once eye-opening, beautiful, and painful, just like the complex, unique, and beautiful experiences of its characters, the women becoming themselves in different ways.
The collection begins with “Hazel and Christopher,” a beautiful, honest, and raw story that is both reflective and innovative. It begins with Hazel as a child, as a boy, and her relationship with Christopher. As she gets older, she moves away, eventually transitioning and returning home to Winnipeg. Just when her life starts to go right, it suddenly begins collapsing around her. Hazel is a gripping and fully-realized protagonist that is easy to connect with over the course of her journey.
This first story sets the tone for the rest of the collection, which doesn’t disappoint in offering fresh new views into the lives of trans women who are constantly trying to understand themselves so they can be themselves. Most of “Hazel and Christopher” is told in third person, but the last couple pages are Hazel talking directly to Christopher and saying something she needs to say but can never tell him in real life. This shift in perspectives is one that is used at other points in the collection, and is just one of the examples of Plett effortlessly breaking the rules in a masterful way you barely notice, allowing her characters to tell their stories in a powerful way.
In addition to the short stories in the book, there are also two longer works included that are closer to novella length. “Obsolution” seems to be at the heart of this collection, a longer story that is interspersed with the alternating stand-alone stories. “Enough Trouble” is another novella length work of nearly 100 pages. It’s about a trans woman who is an alcohol addict and is trying to connect and reconnect with women in her past and present.
“Obsolution” takes us into the lives of yet another happy couple whose lives are upended by gender dysphoria. It begins in Portland with the main character David and his supportive girlfriend Iris, who accepts him right away but never quite understands him.
When David first broaches the topic with Iris, he simply says, “I have some issues with my gender.” (p 42)
Then he elaborates on his journey, “There’s this test called the Benjamin Scale—true transexuals score a six, and I got between a two and a three? So I don’t think I need surgery, but I also know I’m not, like, a regular boy either?…Took me years to figure that out.” (p 43)
Just as Iris accepts him exactly as he is, and who he could become, David lets us into the truth beneath the perfection.
“After David had come out to Iris, he’d thought (naively, in retrospect) that the hard part was over…She knew he had gender issues. Couldn’t Iris understand that?” (p 52)
Further installments of “Obsolution” follow David as his relationship with Iris changes and he decides to transition. David’s pronouns change almost effortlessly and naturally, first from “he”, to just “David”, and then suddenly to “she” when the name Vera suddenly feels right.
This story seems to be the most central in the collection, and contains some of the deepest reflections on gender as Vera explores who she is. It deconstructs gender and asks us to reflect on what it really is, what it’s for, and who it’s serving.
“Gender is just a way of getting something across. It’s a way of telling the world what you need. What you want. What you can’t handle. And the world responds accordingly…Without gender, there is no way to want something from yourself or other people. Gender is language. That’s all gender is.” (p 152-153)
Another story that follows the same structure of “Obsolution” is “Couldn’t Hear You Talk Anymore”, which is also broken into more than one section, on a much smaller scale. It follows a woman named Tiana, and also bends the rules in perspective just like in “Hazel and Christopher.” The first half of the story is told in third person, but the second half switches to Tiana talking in first person to someone else. It’s a powerful shift that takes us from observing Tiana and her life to having her talk directly to us as she finds a way to say things she’s needed to get out but never could.
All of the stories in the collection are fragmented in a way. They are about characters who overcome struggles with identity and the world at large. They go through cycles, as we all do, of thinking they have life figured out, but there’s always another chapter, another struggle. “After David had come out to Iris, he’d thought (naively, in retrospect) that the hard part was over…” (p 52) And that’s what this collection is, ultimately. It’s a window into the lives of these various women, these deeply human experiences about struggling to figure out who we are and what we want and need from the world and the people around us.
The book ends with a very short story, “Floodway,” which is really a vignette, a memory of a time the main character didn’t act but wishes they had or that they could now. It’s a little palate cleanser that allows you to reflect back on the book as a whole and wonder about all the different lives in the collection, and the dreams of who they were, who they are, and who they will become.
There’s something very transitory about these stories and how the women in them are always becoming someone new. It is a collection of perspectives, of change, and a vital read for anyone who has ever become someone new, and perhaps even more so for those who haven’t, so they can feel and understand the millions of beautiful lives that are becoming and changing all around us, and those that are yet to become.
A Dream of a Woman
by Casey Plett
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021, 278 p.p., $21.95
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.