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 confidentqueer 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