An old man sets out on a quixotic quest to protest the erection of a McMansion across from his modest home. A bulimic woman tries therapy to please her top chef boyfriend. An emotionally distant son tries to find a way to cope with his dying father. These are the characters that people the pages of the ten short stories in Shannan Rouss's debut collection, Easy For You.
For the most part they are people who are well-off financially. They have white-collar jobs, more often than not, very good jobs. They live in the fashionable neighborhoods usually associated with the rich and famous. Often they live in beach houses and condos. Some have pools, some, chairs from Paris, and pillows from Argentina. They travel to Italy and hunt truffles at a thousand dollars a pound. They have Russian immigrants to clean for them.
Even when not particularly well off, they have the money to buy a dying horse. They have trophy girl friends and athletic boyfriends. At best they have gotten rich by selling a computer start-up; at worst they teach or sell cemetery plots. They have most of the material things that are supposed to add up to happiness and the good life.
But, of course, they are not happy. As the philosopher was wont to say, money and the things money can buy don't always make for happiness.
The people in Rouss's stories are either downright miserable or leading empty lives, or miserable because they are leading empty lives. They are emotional cripples who are incapable of communicating with those closest to them, their lovers, their spouses, their parents, their children. They try. They play games — 'either/or,' 'who has not.' But games are a poor substitute for meaningful communication. They try to learn to communicate in another language. They flock to therapists. They drink. They lavish affection on animals. Rarely do they get beyond the surface of their relationships.
These are not new themes. Literature is filled with characters that talk and talk, but never seem to understand. Literature is filled with characters that have it all, but still can't find happiness. What Rouss does is to take these stock themes and rework them for the contemporary world. She puts them in a modern context, one that is meaningful for the modern reader.
In "Swans by the Hour," a rich computer executive is letting an old flame use his lavish beach house for her wedding. He seems to have mixed feelings about the wedding and the woman as well. He manages to get through the rehearsal dinner, but on the morning of the wedding, he finds himself almost a stranger in his own house. He puts in a call to his current hot young paramour, and they meet at an isolated little hotel. They spend a decadent afternoon in bed, raid the mini-bar, she licks the salt from a nine dollar jar of cashews. At about twenty five cents a nut, thinks the narrator. She takes a shower, and he hears her singing—"Material Girl," no less. He leaves her a note telling her to order from room service, the more expensive, the better, and he runs off back home in search of something he will surely never find. It seems that whatever you have, you always want something else.
The narrator of "Neither Here Nor There" is burdened with the memory of his son who died a day after birth, a memory his wife is unwilling to share. She simply pretends the child never happened. They go through life, have another child, but the burden haunts him like a ghost. His wife's inability to deal with the loss of the child is like a festering sore on their relationship. "Versailles" looks at a man who finds sincere communication impossible through the eyes of his fourteen year old daughter. "Dog People" examines the complexities created in a relationship by an approaching childbirth. ”Die Meant Enough" deals with a paramour's need to make contact with her lover's estranged wife.
While her themes may not be new, there is no doubt they are universal. Moreover, they are still relevant to the modern world. Rouss is the laureate of the inadequate human beings who speak but do not listen, who hear but do not understand. No doubt the key to these stories is in the quotation from Edna St. Vincent Millay which serves as the book's motto: "Hearing your words, and not a word among them. . . . "