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Shannon Cain will never be convicted of excessive reverence.
My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job. (from “The Nigerian Princes”)
This penchant for the subversive syllogism is one of the many pleasures of Cain’s story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, which won Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Prize for 2011. Making her debut in her early forties, Cain came to fiction writing via an energetic first act that included political activism, work for philanthropies and non-profit organizations, and parenting. She’s also the recipient of an NEA grant, and with Lisa Bowden, the co-editor of Powder, a book of writings by women military veterans.
The title of Cain’s story collection is polymorphously suggestive, teasing the reader into attempted decodings in reaction to the individual stories. Some of my attempts: “The awkward pressure of domestic arrangements.” “The revelatory power of embarrassing situations.” In its context in the title story, the phrase has to do with a character’s complicity in her own idealization, but the collection invites us to think about the title more expansively. In an interview for Arizona Public Media, Cain asserts she writes about people living on the margins of society, not necessarily the economic or racial margins, but the behavioral ones. She’s interested in people who make decisions which get them into trouble.
Often, both the behavior and the trouble are sexual in nature, and sexual politics are one of the collection’s major concerns. Cain describes herself as “a proud feminist-leftist bisexual loudmouth,” whose literary models are James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, and Nadine Gordimer. However, the collection is anything but polemic. Instead it’s gentle, compassionate, and funny. It’s not driven by a sense of grievance or injustice, but by a politics of empathy, and what it offers us is not indictment of how things are so much as an alternate vision of how things might be. It’s not fiction that makes a political argument, but fiction that reifies a political vision. What my family used to say about my grandmother goes equally well for Cain. She never fights: she only conquers.
Perhaps because the first and last stories are about women energetically playing both sides of the field, bisexuality has a strong enough presence in the book to push the reader towards thinking about it as metaphor. In literature, bisexuality often signals the writer’s interest in notions of androgyny, gender confusion, or flexible identity. That’s not Cain’s beat: she’s interested in inclusion, in what might be declared in-bounds for any or all of us. She’s less about sexual Independence Day than sexual Christmas morning. Cain also cites Kurt Vonnegut as an influence, and it’s easy to think that she’s ringing changes on Welcome to the Monkey House in a number of places. The Necessity of Certain Behaviors works the second wave of the sexual revolution of the sixties chronicled by Vonnegut.
Cain shares Vonnegut’s love of deflating the pompous, as seen in the quote at the top, from the story “The Nigerian Princes.” Cain also shares Vonnegut’s love of social topsy-turvydom. For example, in the same story, the narrator uses his best male friend as a reverse beard, pretending that they are lovers (he is in fact heterosexual) in order to keep his parents from pestering him for the grandchildren.
“The Queer Zoo” takes topsy-turvydom a step further:
There’s no actual policy at the Queer Zoo against hiring straight people; that would be illegal. Sam is alert to rumors about the existence of other hetero employees, but so far none have turned out to be true.
Sam cleans cages. Primates, birds, elephants. No, not cages: enclosures. At the Queer Zoo, the word “cage” is forbidden. Sam’s girlfriend, Teri, says he underestimates his coworkers, that he ought to come out, already, that they’re more open-minded than he gives them credit for. But it would be absurd, after all this time, to admit he isn’t gay.
One of Sam’s charges is to care for a group of Bonobos, the subspecies of chimpanzee famous for their bisexuality. But the chimps are not presented as an object lessons in ideal behavior: anything but. Instead, Sam begins to feel protective of the one chimp who doesn’t want to live as if it’s five minutes before the end of the world in a sixties novel. The story works its way towards an unexpectedly touching Bladerunner-esque ending that leaves us asking questions about the ethics of normative pressure, no matter from which angle it may come.
“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 nights, she sleeps by herself in her big, firm, bed.” “This is How it Starts” is the first story of the collection, and, minus the second-person address, it’s reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help in its wry and wistful account of young love in New York. Cain’s comic tonal strategies are similar to Moore’s. Both of Jane’s lovers slowly crank up the pressure on Jane to take their mutual activities from the status of a twice-weekly racquet-ball date to something resembling a normal relationship.
The boy walks beside her, all the dogs at her side. There is silence, during which she assumes his thoughts have moved on to football or food. But at the next doorway, he says, “Lousy pay is why they invented rent control.” His eyes flicker upward, in the direction of her apartment.
In evolutionary terms, her job at this moment is to encourage him. Her girl instinct is clear about this. She is supposed to say something to spark further comments regarding shared domesticity.
Like Moore, Cain is interested in the divided consciousness. We know the idea that’s occurring to Jane, but there is a conspicuous failure of one part of her mind to endorse the observation of the other.
In the wrong hands, the comedy of comparison could go Seinfeld very quickly. Did you ever notice how in bed, woman are all like THIS but men are all like THIS? But the language is delicate, specific, and original. “She ponders instead the unfair advantage of girls over boys. Their adaptable body parts, and their ability to say what they mean.”
Again, the title keeps pushing at us to look for patterns. What certain behaviors are so damn necessary? Jane’s female lover confronts her and pushes her to make a choice. Jane’s habitual response is to deflect, to avoid.
She looks for something relevant to say, some piece of information, something that will not require her to form a sentence containing any of the same words the girl has just used. She looks for a small fact, a clarification. What she ends up with is this: “The dog was a gift.”
Later, on the same page, it’s the boy who wants a heart to heart.
“I’m going back to my wife,” the boy says. They are sitting at the dinette table. Normally he would be gone by the end of her first dog [walking] shift but today she comes home to eggs on the table.
She pushes her plate away. “This is my great-grandmother’s china. It’s antique.”
In the end the story isn’t about the pleasures and pitfalls of liking both oysters and snails. Jane’s bisexuality is a given of the situation, almost a sleight of hand trick, and a clever diversion from the story’s true line of inquiry, which has to do with Jane’s capacity for commitment and intimacy, with her readiness for adulthood. As we eventually learn, Jane’s most significant relational axis is not the romantic engagement of equals but the vertical one of parents and children, and she ends the story on the phone with neither the boy nor the girl but her mother. It’s worth noting the collection features nearly as many pairs of mothers and daughters as it does lovers.
In another interview at The Short Review, Cain says that the number one thing she wants to know from her readers is, “Did I go too far?” Too far in what direction? The book is anything but angry: she’s not working Kathy Acker’s side of the street. Despite the collection’s glorious cover featuring perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing protuberant breast in the history of publishing, the stories aren’t stealth attempts to double as titillation. Writing about sex isn’t the same as writing erotica — Cain isn’t working Susie Bright’s side of the street either. What is sexual freedom pushing against, in this collection? Perhaps in a nation whose Puritan roots are omnipresent, there’s no need to overtly state what the enemy is.
The closest the collection comes to defining its opposite is in “The Steam Room,” the story that does go the furthest, at least in terms of how much trouble it dishes out to its main character. In its opening scene the protagonist Helen is caught masturbating in the YMCA steam room by two “after-school Bible Clubbers.” But lest we read any Manichaean confrontation into this, the story quickly makes it clear that the girls are not cardboard fanatics, and Helen has only herself to blame for getting caught with her pants down. “‘Don’t think it’s not a sickening feeling,’ she confessed. ‘I’m sickened.’”
Helen’s “expensive orgasm” and subsequent public humiliation threatens to land her in jail and is potentially devastating to her husband’s political career. The story is hardly cynical or flip about either of those consequences, but while protestors camp in front of her house holding candles and banners that proclaim, “The Wages of Sin are Death,” an odd thing happens: friends, family members, and complete strangers begin to privately share their own stories of sexual misbehavior and shame with her. Because she’s been caught “jilling off,” she becomes a kind of psychic shame-free zone for others. It’s as if the world keeps failing to draw the most elementary conclusions from high school health class. Everybody likes to get off, so why do we have to expend so much effort concealing it? Welcome to the monkey house.
Good fiction is an invitation to ponder the hologrammatic relationship between the part and the whole. How does this image, or phrase, or sentence, or scene somehow incarnate its parent vessel? How does our take on the intentions of the book inform the way we read its components? Jane, of “This is How it Starts,” is an artist who paints on glass, which necessitates a seemingly backwards approach. “She must paint her foregrounds first… she must put blush on a cheek before she paints a cheek.” The image is slyly suggestive of the process of fiction itself: details have a way of creating stories around themselves, and the act of writing is often a quest to discover why some mental snapshot or fragment of language is exerting such relentless pressure on the writer’s cerebral cortex. The passage also directs us to look at the way human lives are driven by small details, by contingency.
One final return to that pesky multivalent title: here it is in its natural environment.
In the city where she’s from, Lisa knew a man named Bennett with full Greek eyelids, a cynical urban grin, and unappeasable curiosity about Lisa’s feelings. Some mornings while she showered they’d pretend she wasn’t aware he was watching her through the vinyl curtain, which was clear but tinted a flattering pink. Her selection of the curtain was deliberate. In the city where she is from, people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors.
The more time I’ve spent with the title, the less it seems like code, and the more straightforward and irreducible it’s become. I think most of us have often wished for a flattering pink bathroom curtain ourselves, perhaps one we could wrap around our souls. I know I have. “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors” which ends the collection, has a whiff of magical realism about it. Lisa, with the absolute minimum of explanation, leaves Bennett and ends up in a mountain village in a foreign country, where she settles into a life of jealousy-free sex with both a male and female lover. The magic lies not so much in the unexplained oddities of the village (where are the children and old people, and how come they don’t have broadband yet?) as in the absence of emotional mess and trauma. In this village, all sexual attachments are allowed to run their course without anyone locking themselves in the bathroom or hiring a lawyer. That’s one flattering pink curtain.
For more on Shannon Cain, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.