Winner of the 2011 Drue Heinz Literature Prize
Shannon Cain’s stories chart the treacherous territory of the illicit. They expose the absurdity of our rituals, our definitions of sexuality, and above all, our expectations of happiness and self-fulfillment. Cain’s protagonists are destined to suffer—and sometimes enjoy—the consequences of their own restless discontent. In the title story, Lisa, a city dweller, is dissatisfied with her life and relationships. Her attempt at self-rejuvenation takes her on a hiking excursion through a foreign land. Lisa discovers a remote village where the ritualized and generous bisexual love of its inhabitants entrances her. She begins to abandon thoughts of home. In “Cultivation,” Frances, a divorced mother strapped with massive credit card debt, has become an expert at growing pot. When she packs her three children and twelve pounds of homegrown into the minivan and travels cross-country to sell the stash, their journey becomes one of anguish, revelation, and ultimately transformation. “Cultivation,” like many of the stories in The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, follows a trail of broken relationships and the unfulfilled promises of modern American life. Told in precise, evocative prose, these memorable stories illuminate the human condition from a compelling, funny, and entirely original perspective.
Cain is a crackerjack writer. Of the nine stories . . . we found five that were irresistible which is, I think, all one could ask in such an exacting form. The story of the pot mother and the story of the drunk mother are so good that you should get ['Necessity'] just to read them.
Cain's debut collection of nine short stories adroitly navigates the tenuous waters of human relationships. Her quietly august characters struggle to come to terms with the unpredictable nuance of tradition, sexuality, and happiness. Cain's confident and steady prose balances out the emotional tumult of stories just bizarre enough to be believable ... Utilizing painful misunderstandings to maximum effect, Cain's characters arrive at epiphanies without relying on convenient tricks and plot devices. Dark moments that give way to enlightened reflection reveal characters whose selfishness is deftly managed. Cain highlights their humanity rather than calling it into question. She is especially adept at drawing forth vulnerabilities from her female protagonists. This is a work of finely calibrated emotional registers that will set the bar high for Cain's next book.
In nine short stories, Cain takes fringy characters and makes them lovable. From the bisexual dog walker simultaneously courting a man and a woman to the mayor's wife caught masturbating at the YMCA, each tale is served up with comedy and pizzazz.
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.
Shannon Cain . . . has created textured moments of beauty, stark landscapes and a stunning collection of uniquely American lives.
Shannon Cain's stories make people who are usually thought of as being marginal seem central to life in America now. No one is settled or certain. Her moms don't disappear into the role, her lovers flounder even as they are sure they're sexually open-minded, the jobs she portrays are often off the grid and shaky. Yet these are serious lives, and as such, often made me laugh. I put check marks by line after line, marking well-written turns of phrase and sharp insights. This is a really wonderful collection.
The power in this sparkling collection becomes more apparent as one reads: you notice right away that the stories are funny and surprising; it takes a while to see how heartbreaking they can be. Some characters in The Necessity of Certain Behaviors are joyfully bisexual—and finally, perhaps, alone and lonely. Others defy convention differently. Shannon Cain tells their stories with wit, insight, elegant plotting, and compassion. I loved reading about these vibrant, lovable, irrepressible women.
The stories are small Pandora's boxes: So much sorrow runs through them, so much disconnection and loneliness and pain, but even at the end, there's always just a little bit of hope.
Shannon Cain is coeditor of Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Tin House, Colorado Review, New England Review, American Short Fiction, and Southword: New Writing from Ireland. She has taught fiction writing at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University and is the 2011 Picador Guest Professor in Literature at the University of Leipzig.learn more