The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
by Shannon Cain

University of Pittsburgh Press
First Collection

Awards: Winner, 2011 Drue Heinz Literature prize; Cultivation, a Story in this collection was awarded a Pushcart Prize

"Harassing 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

I 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 prize-winners.

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:
There 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.

Cain's 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.

Housework 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:
Betsy 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

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a collection of biology-inspired fictions.

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

SeŠn ” FaolŠin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"

Jonathan Papernick "There is No Other"

Edgar Bayley "The Life and Memoirs of Dr Pi"

Anthony Doerr "Memory Wall"

Carol Emswhiller "The Collected Stories"

Rachel B Glaser "Pee on Water"

Helen Constantine (trans & ed) "Paris Metro Tales
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Shannon Cain is a fiction writer and a writing coach. Her collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2011 and is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her work has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Individual Artist Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the O. Henry Prize and the Pushcart Prize. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, Gotham Writers Workshop, UCLA Extension and Arizona State University. Beginning in late April 2011 she will be the Picador Guest Professor in Literature at the University of Leipzig, in Germany. She is the fiction editor for Kore Press.

Read an interview with Shannon Cain