At first, what gets in your face about Shannon Cain’s collection of stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, is the sex. Everyone’s doing it in these stories, happily or unhappily: there are bisexual women balancing relationships, there are pregnant teenagers, divorced parents relearning to date, a middle-aged woman masturbating in the steam room of the local gym, a young scriptwriter pretending he’s gay to keep his job, a predatory swim coach, lesbian couples sleeping apart as grief begins to dissolve their bond. Sex is part of life in these stories, so much so that at first I thought that the “certain behaviors” of the title referred to mating behavior, coupling behavior of whatever kind you can imagine.
Instead, as I read, I recognized that these stories are far more subtle than that. Cain’s stories are not about sex, not about coupling or uncoupling. They’re about deception — sometimes the deception of others, and sometimes the long slow sensual deception of self. The title story has this lovely little piece:
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.
“They’d pretend she wasn’t aware” — mutual, agreed-upon deception, involving sex and flattery and deliberate ignorance. The rest of the story plays these themes out, along with language, exoticism, relationships, and family.
Others of the stories are equally complex. Perhaps my favorite was “Cultivation,” about a woman who grows high-quality marijuana so she can pay off the astronomical credit card bill left over after her divorce. The relationship between her and her daughter, sharp and tender, and the ways they see each other and yet don’t see each other at all, are beautifully played out. It’s agonizing and redemptive. “Housework,” about a divorced couple who are “nesting,” (a system where the children stay in the home and the parents take turns vacating it, alternating the use of a soulless apartment on the other side of town) is slightly surreal and painfully funny. It is like the steps of a dance, executed perfectly until the last few minutes, when everything collapses (for better or worse.)
Each story plays with themes of how we close our eyes to crucial, essential facts until it’s too late, either about ourselves or about the people we love, but Cain is sympathetic, never sadistic. She knows it’s our nature. One or two of the stories didn’t quite get to the very top level for me (“Juniper Beach” seemed a little loose, and “The Queer Zoo,” though I liked it, out-T.C. Boyled T.C. Boyle), but overall, the stories were addictive, fascinating splinters off bits of lives, like tiny snow globes shaken in the hand.
I think this evolution is true to life. Sex shouts at you. It sells, it gets in the headlines, it sticks in your imagination (and for some people, in the craw.) But it’s never the whole story. It’s as Peter Wimsey says in Gaudy Night: Sex isn’t a separate thing functioning away all by itself. It’s usually attached to a person of some sort. And, I would add, that person has a story. Shannon Cain is telling these stories, stories about the deceptions we find necessary to make our lives and loves work, and telling them precisely, sharply, in splintery, happy-unhappy prose. This collection won this year’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to read it: if you can get your hands on it, I recommend you read it, too. (And read Emily’s thoughts on sex scenes in books; she says it far better than I have here!)