Amina Cain’s collection, Creature (Dorothy Project, 2013), owes great debts to the writing of Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector. Cain samples bits of their prose, and elsewhere mimics and tweaks their styles. Consider how Cain takes the stripped-down approach of Duras’ Moderato Cantabile in a wholly new direction. The first piece, “A Threadless Way,” opens vaguely: “When I first moved here, I lived in a friend’s room in a loft.” She never names either the city or the friend. Later, in the same paragraph, she closely inspects a cornfield: “I would get off my bike and look at the plants, at the cobs of corn hidden in their pale green husks.”
The initial vagueness stands in sharp, well-composed contrast to the relative concreteness at the end. It also establishes the basic stance of all Cain’s narrators. “Withdrawn” may be a too obvious—and imprecise—adjective. These women seem to have been born mid-life; they seem to know as much about their lives as you and I; they seem to be feeling out the contours and textures of the sensible world. I often felt, while reading about them, as though I was riding through someone else’s dream. That feeling was enhanced by Cain’s apparent disinterest in plot. In these pieces, fragments of life seem pressed together without much concern for cause and effect. We are given impressions, not pictures.
It’s unfortunately predictable that the best moments are rendered in specific language. In “The Sleeve of My Coat,” the narrator accosts her neighbor’s daughter Sylvie:
I ask her, because I do want to know, “Is that dancing?” and she says that it is, that she learned it the day before in her ballet class. “It’s not dancing,” I tell her and she doesn’t respond. Just like with the couples, I’m surprised at how long this “dancing” can go on, but I try to stay present.
Cain’s narrators can describe scenes, but they seem unable or unwilling to do more. If you want a narrator who will provide a bright full view of her mind, or if you want one who might follow that line about corn with glowing white passion, you will not be satisfied by these pieces. What does the first narrator think about corn? What does this one think about Sylvie? Exactly as much as she has written.
These narrators appear to have been hollowed out by experiences they hardly remember, if they remember them at all. They are trying and failing to refill themselves with work, books, sex, and zazen. When they are put into specific situations, their strangeness is compelling. When they are not, their hollowed-out quality makes them seem plain hollow. In “Delicately Feeling,” for instance, the narrator enters a relationship with an anonymous married couple. Before they have sex, she says,
“Life is frightening.” I sigh. “But it is also tender.”
“It is,” the woman says. “And sometimes it becomes new.”
Duras’ dialogue brilliantly drove Moderato Cantabile from moment to moment, as Anne and the young man circled round and round their subjects, building momentum and mystery. Here, though, Cain tries to cram meaning into her characters’ mouths. As a result, they sound insipid.
In her most successful piece, “Queen,” the narrator avoids direct contact with other people. Although “Queen” is written from the collection’s standard dreamy position, it has more focus than any of the other pieces. The narrator and Marguerite (Duras?) are hotel maids, roommates, and perhaps lovers. They are both together and estranged. The piece is composed of six paragraphs of roughly equal size, each of them packed with fragments which underline the narrator’s separation from Marguerite and from others—a separation solidified by a recent ice storm. It ends with a quote from Lispector’s Hour of the Star: “. . . Who has not asked himself at one time or another: am I a monster or am I a person?” It also bears the great hallmark of Lispector’s writing: scraps of thoughts and images are brought together to make a fresh sense of the world and, as the same time, to create a new mind in relation to that world.
Cain’s toughest, shortest sentences build toward that quote:
Read. Walk. I managed to get a book. And always, cleaning to be done. Play music. A woman’s voice. Mop the floor. Fall into bed. Stay still. Queen. How many are walking around out there? Like people. Like ghosts. Try to find a pencil. Draw all over my arm. Read again. Nine o’clock.
At the title word, “queen,” the narrator’s attention shifts briefly. From her new, elevated, royal position, she sees bodies which signify not selves but metaphors for selves. If a real person exists, she is not in that body but elsewhere. Unless and until she finds that elsewhere, she must be less than human. A reader may feel the same way about all of Cain’s characters. They have a beauty, but we feel it only so often.