The Queer Zoo

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Shannon Cain’s short story collection, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, offers a refreshingly agnostic and all-embracing perspective on sexual desire and identity.

In the title story of Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, a single woman from the city gets lost on an “ecotourism trek” only to discover a hidden tribe whose villagers enjoy a blissful system of bisexual polyamory. In “The Steam Room,” the mayor’s wife gets caught masturbating at the YMCA. And in “I Love Bob,” a girl with an androgynous love interest stakes out “The Price Is Right” because she thinks Bob Barker is her father.

The hip, quirky scenarios of Cain’s debut collection, which won the 2011 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, partly explain why her work stands out among debut short fiction, but they don’t explain why these stories are so good. The satisfaction they offer has less to do with Cain’s (wonderfully bewildered) characters or (satisfyingly non-gimmicky) plot developments, I think, than it has to do with her dead-accurate sardonic tone. And given how delicious that tone is, I’m surprised Necessity didn’t attract more attention last year. In these stories, the characters and the narrator both speak in “the flat tones of their urban language,” as one story names it, with an effect of subtle but satisfying irony. Here’s Cain on the city woman’s entry into polyamory utopia:

She is teary and grateful when a woman comes out of a hut and gives her a bowl with water in it. With a great deal of kindness the woman watches her drink, and then takes her by the hand. She brings Lisa into the hut and feeds her a stew of meat and a starchy root vegetable, flavored with sweet spices and featuring pleasant pungency caused, Lisa guesses, by someone having aged, or possibly smoked, a key ingredient.

Here’s Cain in “The Nigerian Princes,” channeling a guy who pretends to have a boyfriend so that his mother won’t harp on him about having children: “My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job.”

And from the opening of “The Steam Room”:

Helen was unhappily married to the mayor of their midsized American city. Sometimes she masturbated in the steam room of the downtown YMCA. A sign posted in the showers named the city statute under which those engaging in sexual behavior of ANY KIND would be prosecuted. It admonished members to THINK! But yesterday afternoon, hidden in the semi-dark and wrapped in a hot fog, she called up the eyes of Johnny Depp, gazing into hers as his tongue traced perfect, slow circles around her clitoris.

Clear sexual descriptions fuel many of Cain’s best passages, as does her refreshingly agnostic and all-embracing perspective on sexual desire and identity. In “This Is How It Starts,” the protagonist Jane begins the story with a “boy” and a “girl” she likes equally: “The girl is fond of her strap-on. The boy is fond of cunnilingus. This is satisfying to Jane. Plus, Jane can say this to the girl: ‘It would be nice if your dick were bigger.’ Jane would not make this statement to the boy, though it may be slightly true.” Jane ends up with neither the boy nor the girl, but the story never implies that she should or could arrive at an identity-limiting epiphany, and instead ends with a different variety of bittersweet irony that I won’t reveal.

Likewise, in “The Queer Zoo,” a guy who works at a zoo for homosexual animals stays in the closet about his girlfriend for fear of reverse discrimination. Yet the ending hangs less on his coming out as hetero than it does with his leaving behind a slacker past. The folly of sexual labeling factors in nearly every story—even in “The Steam Room,” the wife’s best friend happens to be a closeted lesbian. But the strength of these stories is the way they take a cosmic view of sexual politics and instead aim for subtler themes and targets.

At the end of the title story, for instance—I’ll give the ending away because knowing it doesn’t detract from the rollicking-fun reading experience—Lisa’s city boyfriend comes to rescue her from the polyamorous tribe. Will they stay together in the tribe? Both head back to the city? Part ways? In the best kind of open ending, we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because the conventions of city relationships and the complicated tribal relations now seem equally impossible and bizarre. Attachment itself is the mystery of these stories, and not just between people who sleep with each other.

Not every story here plays out so brilliantly. “Cultivation,” about the attachment between a teenage girl and her mother, a pot grower, grinds along to what seems like a tacked-on short story ending for a novel-length premise. “Housework,” about a separated couple who take turns sleeping (and sleeping with others) in a shared apartment between week-long shifts with the kids, also felt ploddingly premise-bound.

But these are still two very enjoyable examples in an overwhelmingly exciting first showing. For the most part these nine addictive, oddly relatable stories show us the strange world we think we know, and then take us some place even stranger.

Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir, The Lost Night. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in ZYZZYVA, the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Nevada City, California, and teaches for Stanford Continuing Studies' certificate program in novel writing and at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. More from this author →