This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Shannon Cain will be the featured author throughout the week.
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.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)