In "A Chain of Tiny Disasters," Rebecca McKanna tells the story of two American sisters traveling in Italy. Of the two young women, one is widowed and the other divorced. With its plain, straightforward style and its easy navigation around topics such as sex and substance abuse, it is arguably representative of a style common among many contemporary American writers.
The attitudes implicit in the sexual encounters and ample use of marijuana and alcohol described in the story are at the opposite end of the spectrum from early American fiction. In those early works of fiction, strict compliance with social mores was considered sacrosanct by most writers. Where there was deviation from that message, such as the strong sympathetic notes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale's illicit romance, such fiction did not record or condone the kinds of excess found in McKanna's story.
Reflecting a contrast to figures in early American fiction, the narrator of "A Chain of Tiny Disasters" appears to think little of her ongoing need to numb her experience with booze and even less about the possible consequences of her spontaneous sexual experiences. To the extent that it reflects the dramatically changed views on sex in contemporary American culture, "A Chain of Tiny Disasters" can be compared to Garth Greenwell's "Beneath the National Palace of Culture," which also describes American sexual behavior overseas.
This shift in American morals and values—and how its writers negotiate that shift—has a long and complex history. There are authors in between Hawthorne and McKanna on the American literary timeline who have contributed to the United States' conversation about morality. These include Henry Miller, much of whose work has been described as pornographic and was banned upon initial publication in the mid 20th century, and Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road is similar to Miller's work in its lack of moral restraint and embrace of all experiences.