Modern Restlessness

Shannon Cain's smart stories explore intriguing relationships—as well as their successes and failures

There is a boy and there is a girl. Jane sees the girl on Tuesdays and Fridays and she sees the boy on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The other three days she sleeps by herself ... ."

Relationship happiness, as sought by the characters in Shannon Cain's debut collection of taut short stories, seems to rest on a delicate balance: The one who can stand in the middle of the emotional seesaw and keep both ends up might attain it. On the other hand, with that degree of fragile triangulation, you know somebody's backside will land hard.

Tucsonan Cain's nine stories center on relations—with lovers, between mothers and daughters, between spouses with children as intermediaries, and even with abnormally heterosexual animals. A good deal of the lovers/spouses interaction is conducted sexually, but it's a contemporary, matter-of-fact transaction: It's not passionate or squirm-inducing. It's a mechanism to relate and self-identify, and through Cain's immaculate prose, it becomes a way to observe social behavior.

She sometimes upends the norm to make that observation. In "The Steam Room," a mayor's wife's stultifying life of smiling, shopping, fundraising and husband-supporting comes to an abrupt halt when she's caught by high school swimmers pleasuring herself at the Y. In "Cultivation," a loving but careless mother of three takes the family on a cross-country road trip to cash in her marijuana harvest.

In addition to the reality of personal compromise for politics in "The Steam Room," Cain raises issues of "moral hypocrisies and false standards of decency and what girls are taught to believe." But through the mayor's family and the pot-farmer's daughters, she also raises the issue of what parents ignore in relation to their children.

A couple of the stories are make-you-smile, just-on-the-edge credible. In "The Nigerian Princes," in order to keep a girlfriend, an office nerd hatches a scheme to reverse-harass Nigerian prince scammers. The girlfriend proves creative in the enterprise. ("Meet me at Lufthansa luggage carousel number five in Oslo, she emails. ... Leave any tribal accoutrements [masks and spears and whatnot] in your village.") The scheme keeps the excitement up, but because the guy stupidly persuaded the girlfriend to use her office computer, he's getting her canned.

The kid in "I Love Bob" (that'd be Barker), who saves hamsters by "rebirthing" them into pet stores' cages, is an interesting addition to this just-credible category, but the take-the-cake oddity piece is "The Queer Zoo." There, central-character Sam, a would-be playwright who cleans cages in a sanctuary for homosexual animals, notices that a female bonobo named Bixby doesn't engage with other females. Ninety-eight percent of all bonobos are bisexual, so Bixby is clearly an aberration. There's money and fame to be had in subjecting her to scientific experimentation, but it also raises ethical questions. Does Sam have the backbone to put aside his weed, finish his play, and risk being outed as straight by stepping up to save Bixby?

It's quite fun, actually.

The opening and closing stories are probably Cain's most serious, though they have their whimsy as well. The central character in each is to some degree psychologically and relationally stuck. In "This Is How It Starts," the equilibrium between a professional dog-walker and her two lovers begins to shift when she lets "the boy" have the night usually reserved for "the girl." A creature of habit, she lives in her mother's and grandmother's rent-controlled apartment, eating off their china and using their old appliances. When she begins to show a preference for one lover over the other, her world begins to tip out of control.

The final story—the collection's title story—comments on culture and ritual. Fed up with her urban life, Lisa goes to a foreign country on an ecotourism trek. She gets separated from the others, and ends up in a mountain village populated by beautiful young people. They welcome her, and she soon settles, finding first a female, and then a male, lover. Whereas the world tips and crashes in "This Is How It Starts," the culture in "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors" adjusts.

Shannon Cain's characters reflect a contemporary restlessness, a vague dissatisfaction with their roles in the world and a lack of clarity as to how to change them. The stories—smart and well-written—don't offer simple fixes. Recognizing identity, accepting responsibility and mediating toward some sort of balance, however, provide their characters with some coping tools.

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