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Amina Cain builds slow, intimate portraits in 'Creature'

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The peril of reading literary short stories is that one tends to encounter characters who behave not like you or me but like the kind of people one finds only in short stories.

Despite the realist tradition in which these poor souls are usually trapped, they aren't quite believable. With the subtlety of a train lumbering through town, protagonists dutifully observe the present, reflect on the past and yearn for something in the future that's just out of reach. Although the landscape is familiar, their outsized troubles are compressed to facilitate change and foster closure in a way that isn't achievable in real life.

L.A. writer Amina Cain rejects this paradigm. In "Creature," a follow-up to her debut collection, "I Go to Some Hollow," Cain presents characters to whom things have happened. Withdrawn and achingly vulnerable, their interiors are not fully accessible to us. They move through the narrative with few possessions or attachments.

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They are like people who have narrowly escaped disaster. Shell-shocked and clothing in tatters, they slip away to a quiet place — not to escape the feeling of having survived something extraordinary but to nurture it.

"Time opens up and something is wrong. The wind blows in the opposite direction. The sky is a strange color. Even my voice sounds like someone who hasn't spoken in a long time."

In 14 prose pieces — it would be a mistake to call them "stories" because the label underscores what's not there — Cain presents a series of female characters at loose ends. The go-to cliché would be to say they are in some way haunted, but that's not quite right. Rather, the intimate way in which Cain gradually exposes her characters makes it feel as though we are haunting them.

"I spent a whole day reading a book in my kitchen. I knew I would never be able to talk to anyone about it."

There are no stakes, no rising action, no arc. Just a wild kind of lostness that's as alluring as it is unsettling.

Cain whisks the reader into these inward-looking scenes but doesn't wallow in them, and she engages us directly with candid confessions and sly humor: "Sometimes I forget the names of books, the ones I like the most. My memory is bad, and I'm ashamed of what I think about literature — I can only open up to a few people in this way. I work in a bookstore, so this isn't a good quality."

Her characters converse with confidants, talk to strangers and read deeply. Perhaps the most unusual thing about "Creature" is that so many of its protagonists are readers.

The irony is that while Cain's characters are unique in the way they feel intensely alive, she achieves this by allowing them to succumb to the pleasures of retreating to a place that can be found only inside a work of art.

Ruland is the author of the short-story collection "Big Lonesome" and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount.


Creature

Amina Cain

Dorothy, a publishing project: 144 pp., $14 paper


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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