November 07, 2011
Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for 2011, showcasing a collection of short stories that speaks to us about love, need, and irreversible actions. What is necessary, what behaviors do we implore when seeking freedom, family or peace? When you are in love with a man and a woman, how do you decide between the two, amidst puppies and wives and a bed filled with the ghosts of your lovemaking? Would you be willing to deal drugs, to sell a large quantity of pot in order to keep your family intact, to chase that plastic package into a dark river, riddled with fear? A mother caught in a steam room masturbating her way into another world, another life, the one she wishes she had lived, cannot overshadow her own daughter’s questionable love for a teacher, a coach, an older man. Lost in the jungle, one woman finds that her sexuality knows no boundaries, instead captivated by the slick dark flesh of men and women alike, trying hard to leave behind the civilized world, in order to embrace her true self. A queer zoo, Bob Barker, and a AAA travel guide eager to get off the beaten path, round out this body of work, the stories in this slim bound volume heartbreaking, alluring, exotic, and lush.
From the first story in the collection, “This Is How It Starts,” we are introduced to the unique lifestyle of Shannon Cain’s characters. The protagonist, Jane, is anything but plain, dating two people—one male, and one female:
“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.”
Immediately we are left wondering how this will work out, how they can coincide, what kinds of arrangements are made? And what about the sex?
“The girl is fond of her strap-on. The boy is fond of cunnilingus. This is satisfying to Jane. Plus, Jane can say this to the girl: ‘It would be nice if your dick were bigger.’ Jane would not make this statement to the boy, though it may be slightly true.”
This story is not mere titillation, although it certainly retains a bit of heat. It is a funny story, one that utilizes the truth inherent in any comparison between men and women, from their bedroom behavior, to their entertainment choices, to the way that each of Jane’s lovers chooses to deal with her open relationship. Yes, they all know what is going on here, but the three have yet to get together.
As it is with any author of merit, this story is not about the sex, or even about the unique relationship structure. It is about love, loss, and how we all try to keep our heads on straight, to fill ourselves up with the passions of others, our eternal destination always truth. When push comes to shove, one of her loves leaves her, the other already feeling secondary, fading into the background, and our Jane discovers that it is not them—it is her. This is how it starts. Jane is not ready, she has filled her life with her dog-walking duties, with her artwork, with her boy, and with her girl, and when they step away, when she lets them leave her, she finds that there isn’t much of herself left over from which to rebuild her life.
One of the most endearing traits of Cain’s work is the ability to take something sacred and special, and pull back the curtain to reveal its true essence. She is able to capture a moment, and show us how much that sliver of time meant to her characters, something touching perhaps from a history steeped in darkness, and then call it forth later to bring us full circle, leaving us devastated by such revelations. Take these two passages from the story “I Love Bob,” a hilarious tale about a girl named Hillary who believes that her father is Bob Barker, the game-show host. It starts with her mother, who is now an alcoholic, a burden and often an embarrassment, but at one time, was simply an artist:
“As a kid she’d follow her mother into the studio to watch her hands bring another graceful, sad vase into being, coaxing a shape from a lump of wet clay. Over time, her round vases evolved into spheres, the openings becoming tinier and tinier: the circumference of a pinky. And then there were no openings at all, just globes. Her potter’s wheel spun, balancing one wet delicate ball after another. Hillary’s task as little girl was to blow a wish to Ptah, the Egyptian god of artisans, when her mother sealed a new top hole with her slurry-slick fingers.”
Such an endearing moment here, the artist mother bringing her daughter in touch with her work, the sweetness of a child’s breath breathed into the globe with a religious, haughty “PTAH.”
But even back then, as a little girl, Hillary had her doubts about these moments—pessimistic that anything would work out, certain that her mother’s wine breath would doom the fragile globes to destruction. And in the final paragraph of the story Cain brings us back to that earlier moment, to show us how things really turned out:
“Behind her in the alley, a dumpster stood open. Its sugary acidic stench filled the Los Angeles afternoon. The sun burned on, baking her head. Inside her chest, the pottery globe shattered, piercing bone and muscle with its fragments and finally freeing her own sweet, childlike breath.”
Freedom and destruction in one painful gasp.
Through her explorations of relationships, families, and emotions, Cain often relies on the bittersweet to keep the reader squirming, to allow us to see the many shades of gray, taking us into the darkness, abandoning us, and then coming back later to pull us into the light. The mixture of humor and truth, vulnerability and independence, is evidenced in a few passages here from “The Steam Room”:
“Helen was unhappily married to the mayor of their midsized American city. Sometimes she masturbated in the steam room of the downtown YMCA.”
“During periods in their marriage, Helen and Jerome went dry for weeks at a time. Lately they’d been as chaste as siblings. Except that he still got undressed in front of her. Hoping, she supposed, that she’d notice the effects of his new exercise regimen. Such a shame, she thought. He started to look good the moment she could no longer stand the thought of fucking him.”
The first response is to laugh, and certainly that’s an appropriate reaction. But buried under that initial gut reaction is one of sadness. The longer these passages linger on the tongue, the more the sugar becomes sour.
I found myself actively rooting for a couple to get back together again in “Housework,” the games that separated spouses play, painful ones to watch—a drama that is an all too familiar story in these difficult times. The escalation of the shared apartment they inhabit is an experiment in “nesting,” whereby the homestead stays intact and the parents rotate in and out, struggling to maintain some sense of normality. It starts with a dirty spoon and a lost wristwatch and progresses to spilled coffee and dirty sheets. But when the mother and wife, Betsy, stared through the peephole at two in the morning in the final words of this story, I knew what I wanted to see—what I begged Cain to give me. I wasn’t disappointed.
To put together a great collection of short fiction, you must push and pull, work the reader over, build us up and then break us down, show us the light, and then steal us away into the darkness, whispering in our ear the entire time that everything will be okay. Or maybe, that everything will not be okay. But whatever the outcome, come along for the ride, take her hand, live in these pages, breathe deep, and exhale, and unravel—spent. This is a gripping, touching, powerful collection of stories. In her own words, Shannon Cain has shown us that “people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors.” And isn’t that the truth?
NOTE: This is the second Drue Heinz Prize winner that I have read. Last year, it was Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects, my very first book review here at TNB, and one of my favorite books of 2010. If these two collections are indicative of the kind of talent that the University of Pittsburgh Press is going to keep recognizing and promoting, then you might want to keep an eye on these awards. I know I will.