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Book Review Joanna Howard

A Robber in the House
Jessica Treat
Coffeehouse Press, 1993, reissued 2004 ($10.95)

More than ten years after its original publication date, A Robber in the House, Jessica Treat's first collection of stories continues to have an impact on writers of the short-short. One of four works in Coffehouse Press's short-lived short-short Coffee-to-Go Series, the book has circulated perhaps mostly widely by riding on word of mouth recommendation. Despite the fact that this book may not have enjoyed the same degree of notoriety as Lydia Davis's Break it Down or Amy Hempel's At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, it remains a seminal example of short-short prose.

Many of Treat's stories, like Davis's work, turn on issues of etiquette or conduct, offering moments of obsessive thought with a larger kind of alienation emerging from a character's focus on a small detail. Yet unlike Davis characters who often come out unfazed or goaded by another's breech of etiquette, the characters and narrators of A Robber in the House seem more tremulous. They express a different kind of vulnerability, questioning the actions of others in the social sphere in a way that leads to doubts about their own actions and thoughts. Like Hempel, Treat often pulls a very real situation into a moment of surreal manifestation, the two elements merging as if in a dream space. However, while Hempel often softens her paradoxes into lyrical image or metaphor, Treat rarely allows the strange or unexplainable to be subsumed into the real; instead these two elements stand side-by-side so that it is often hard to know how to feel upon leaving a story. It is perhaps for this reason that A Robber in the House lingers in the mind after having been read, somehow still being digested, considered, and weighed.

In "The Women of Nijar" a simple experience, being lost in the car, culminates in one of the passengers claiming to see what the others have been hoping to see all along. While the story critiques the fancies of paranoia, anxiety and cultural expectation, it also acknowledges the power of the imagined vision; moreover, whatever is going on—real, fantastic, or simply imagined—is secondary to the effect it creates for the character. Indeed in a story such as "Night", dream, memory, and reality seem likewise interchangeable, when a character wakes up from a dream into a reality that turns out instead to be a memory. Even more complicated, the attempt to express or communicate the reality of a situation often overwhelms and ultimately silences a narrator, particularly in "Translation" in which an attempt to generate intimacy through language leaves the narrator isolated and distanced from a shared experience.

Though stylistically these stories seem constructed of transparent language, the care and rendering of each sentence is reminiscent of Mary Caponegro's rigor: every word is carefully chosen and each sentence meticulously punctuated, leaving ambiguity in the space between words and ideas more than in the relationship between the words themselves. Treat writes narrative with the care of a poet yet avoids lyric abandon, always returning to clear, concrete phrases and pursuing a discernible narrative. It is little wonder that A Robber in the House continues to develop its audience and reputation over time; this is a mark of its longevity and endurance, as well as of its subtlety and depth.