The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
by Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press
Awards: Winner, 2011 Drue Heinz Literature prize; Cultivation, a Story in this collection was awarded a Pushcart Prize
the Nigerian Princes was something Louise and I could do together. We
knew that couples tend to split up when they don't have common
interests, like surfing or scrapbooking or smoking weed. Until we
started fucking with the Nigerian Princes, Louise and i were heading
down that road. She had her bitter feminist book group and her beer-drinking rock climbers and I had my
Neanderthal white guy football Sundays and my language poetry workshop.
The Nigerian Princes brought us back to one another."
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
must say that the judges of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which is
awarded annually to a collection of short stories and/or novellas,
have excellent taste. This is the third winning collection I have
read - after Edith Pearlman's Vaquita and Other Stories and Tina May Hall's The Physics of Imaginary Objects
- and the range, versatility, experimentalism and sheer quality of all
the stories is quite breath-taking. No safe stories these, they push at
borders and boundaries, of content and of language. Shannon Cain's
collection, the latest winner, is a worthy addition to the list of
Cain's writing first came to my attention - anonymously - when I chose her story, The Nigerian Princes (then titled Ramon
and included in this collection), as a runner-up in the 2010 Sean
O'Faolain short story contest for which I was the sole judge. It's a
story that made me laugh out loud, not just on the first read but on
the subsequent readings too - which is something sure to delight any
judge of a short story competitions. Humour, done well, is very rare.
Humour with a bite is rarer still. (See the quote at the top of the
page for illustration, and follow the link at the bottom of this review
to read the story.)
It turns out that Nigerian Princes is,
in this collection at least, somwhat atypical. It is the only story in
the book that is told in the first person, and one of only two stories
of the nine here whose main character is male. Cain's style in the rest
of the stories is one of slightly cool detachment: the main characters
are being watched at a remove, allowing us to see them more fully than
they can see themselves. This does not prevent us from becoming engaged
with them, not at all; Cain has a wonderful knack for moving the camera
nearer and nearer in towards her protagonists, until we find we are in
deep, we are enmeshed in their plight, we can't help but be affected.
Cain makes clear that sexuality is one of her concerns from the book's opening story, this is how it starts, which starts thus:
is a boy and there is a girl. Jane sees the girl on Tuesdays and
Fridays and the boy on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The other three nights
she sleeps by herself in her big, firm bed. She gathers the dogs each
morning at six. This requires both the boy and the girl to leave her
apartment and refrain from preparing her breakfast. Given the chance,
the boy would make eggs benedict. The girl would make cheese omelets.
On Jane's mornings alone she eats cold cereal with sugar.This
sets up the story so well. Jane has a system. Everything in its place.
neatly compartmentalized. She has company when she wants it and is
alone when she wants to be. She has a lover of either sex who do not
even need names, they are defined by their gender. They are distinct.
Clearly, disaster is waiting. Yet Cain, because she is an excellent
writer, does not usher in any kind of predictable catastrophe. She is
far cleverer than that, and the situation that results when this system
breaks down, as it must, is poignant, recognisable. Loneliness, the
desire for intimacy, is something that transcends gender, sexuality.
stories have a touch of George Saunders in the slightly ironic
narrator's voice and the quirky situations such as that of Sam, the
secretly-heterosexual employee of the Queer Zoo in the story of that
name, an establishment whose mission is to "raise public awareness of
the biological fact of homosexuality while bringing a fun and
educational experience to children and families"; and the title
story, in which Lisa, on "an ecotourism trek in the mountains of a
foreign country", is separated from her group and finds herself in a
village which appears to be populated by very good looking young people
all of whom have lovers of both sexes.
is one of my favourite stories. Betsy and Danny, whose diminutive names
already tell you a lot about them (had they been Elizabeth and Daniel,
this would be a different story) are divorcing, but instead of one of
them leaving the family home, they both move out, renting an apartment
in which one stays on the days the other is in the house with the
children. Cain deftly paints a picture of this situation through the
state in which each spouse leaves the shared apartment:
and Danny are tidy people. Except for their toiletries, which they each
have purchased in duplicate, they leave nothing in the apartment. It is
as impersonal as a hotel room. In unspoken agreement they both erase
any trace of themselves before they leave.As with the
opening story, disaster and menace are crouched in this set-up, waiting
to spring. Cain is excellent at scene-setting, we are told just what we
need and no more. The sterility symbolises the state of Betsy and
Danny's marriage, of course, but the ending, far from being inevitable,
is quiet, powerful, real.
This is a wonderfully different and satisfying short story collection,
each story offering up more on subsequent reads. Cain approaches
familiar situations - love, loss, shame - from unfamiliar angles, in
unique ways, and her stories leave a mark on the reader.
Congratulations to the Drue Heinz Literature Prize judges, and thank
you, for bringing us not only Shannon Cain's stories but for every book
you have brought to publication that may otherwise not have been born.
Read a story from this
collection in Southword