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Let’s be honest, great expectations of literary endeavors often result in readerly disappointment. But this is not the case with Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors (University of Pittsburgh Press), a collection of nine short stories that has garnered much critical acclaim since its publication last year, including being awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize as well as being selected as a Lammy finalist for fiction.
Cain offers the reader a more contemplative collection of stories than her self-professed “proud feminist-leftist bisexual loudmouth” personal tag suggests. Or perhaps this is the ingenuity of the collection, which is thematically unified by questions of normality, in terms of sexuality, gender, and ethics, minus an assault of authorial morality. Her prose is strong, succinct, but lacks judgment, which one might assume a “loudmouth” laden the stories with, but which Cain gloriously refuses entry into her narratives. This is a sign of a confident queer writer—one who is able to touch upon the truths of queer existence without framing those truths through moralistic lenses.
Hence the title: ‘the necessity of certain behaviors.’ The queer, eccentric, and peculiar behaviors of each story’s protagonist are necessities both of and to their existence. These behaviors define Cain’s characters, lend both credibility and depth to their respective human conditions. Jane, the protagonist of the first story, ‘This is how it begins,’ simultaneously dates “the girl” and “the boy,” somewhat indifferently, as intimated by their gendered-but-nameless appellations. Both “the girl” and “the boy” tell Jane they love her; yet there is no emotional reciprocity. Instead Jane remains coolly detached—albeit rumblings of emotional attachments underneath this detached façade become apparent to the reader as the story progresses—and this, the reader can infer, is the behavior that is a necessity for Jane to maintain her lifestyle as a student-artist. Jane, ever the student and ever the artist, is foremost an observer of life; to emotionally attach herself, to either “the boy” or “the girl,” is to risk jeopardizing her identity and position in life.
The topic of interpersonal relations—particularly amorous relationships and parent-child relationships—figures prominently in the collection. For instance, in the eponymous story, ‘The Necessity of Certain Behaviors,” the Anglo, city-dwelling protagonist, Lisa, leaves her urban jungle for a foreign village which she enters into as a pseudo-anthropologist but quickly becomes a native villager, actively participating in the psycho-sexual structures that define the village’s society: sexuality is fluid; all villagers have multiple lovers of different genders; and, for the mating season during which Lisa enters their society, all elderly and children villagers have absconded to the nearby mountains. “In the city where [Lisa] is from,” Cain observes, “people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors.” Indeed. But what Lisa comes to find in her new village society is that every society functions and is defined by its particular “certain behaviors,” whether its observing the online dating rituals of vetting potential lovers in the urban jungle, or seducing a male lover by pouring wine over his body while performing a ritual dance and song in a foreign one. It is the behaviors that define the society/individual, not vice versa.
Cain with unyielding sincerity describes the garden variety of shame-faced obligation and the consequential frustration that imbues parent-child relations in a handful of her stories, most notably in “Cultivation” and “Housework.” In the former, Cain depicts the mother-daughter relationship successfully through weaving the first person voices of both the Weeds-esque, pot-smoking and pot-growing mother, Frances, and her teenage daughter, Emily who is forced to take on the parental role of caring for both her mother and her two younger half-brothers while at the same time negotiating her budding sexuality and naïve sexual explorations with another teenage boy. Who is the parent? And, who is the child? Both are both the parent and the child, depending on the precise point of relation, the “third” of the relation, whether the third is Frances’ marijuana, Emily’s sexual experimentation, or the other children.
And this is the thing: the necessity of certain behaviors, while selfish in the purest of senses, never solely affects the individual alone. Behaviors are played out in the world; an individual’s quirky, “certain” behaviors affect those she interacts with—and those behaviors, therefore, have very real consequences in the world. This political theme is most apparent in the most unique of the stories, “The Queer Zoo,” in which the reader witnesses the transposition of human sexual codes onto the primate world. How Sam relates to and understands his sexuality directly affects how he relates to and understands the “sexuality” of Bixby, his favorite bonobo at the “queer zoo,” who is the queerest of them all because she refuses to participate in homosocial relations with the other female bonobos—a rarity in the matriarchally-structured bonobo society. Bixby, who is deemed “heterosexual” because of her aversion to same-sex relations, is set to be “examined” at length to determine the root of her apparent heterosexuality. Sam, an employee at the zoo, is supposed to support the zoo’s study. But he, who is “queer” within the “queer zoo” for being the sole heterosexual employee, cannot ethically advocate this study, this examination of Bixby to determine the cause of her sexuality. To define her. His stealing of Bixby away from the zoo, and thus away from this clinical examination is a political act of defiance, and, more specifically, the defiance of society’s fixation on identity and on the political knowing that identification constitutes in that society.
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors is a fun and compelling summer read for the thoughtful-minded.
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
By Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press
Hardcover, 978082294412, 144p