Agency and Wonder: Amina Cain’s Indelicacy

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To read Amina Cain is to enter tide pools of the mind. On its surface, her fiction is quiet, lovely, contained, but sit with any passage and that which seems still uncoils and comes alive. The reach of her fiction is an invitation to peer deep into our inner worlds.

In the tradition of the Künstlerroman, Cain’s debut novel Indelicacy follows the maturity and growth of an artist, and like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, it is a novel interested in consciousness, identity, the passage of time, art, and freedom. Indelicacy tells the story of a woman who desires a life beyond her janitorial duties, a life where she can nurture her writing aspirations and the friendships she holds dear; however, to focus on plot alone would deny the narrative its inner depth. Like Cain’s short story collections, I Go to Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and Creature (Dorothy, 2013), the space the novel inhabits is largely interior, yet the longer form opens the narrative up to a grander investigation of self and society. Cain has said that “inner life can propel a narrative forward as much as plot,” and indeed what animates Indelicacy is the thrill of experiencing the narrator’s mind attuning to both her inner and outer worlds with equal parts agency and wonder.

Cain’s magic act is her ability to write the interior life without tumbling into the traps of isolation, solipsism, or spiraling self-obsession. Instead, Cain writes into the expansiveness of the narrator’s thought processes, not in isolation but in concert with her surrounding environment. While working as a cleaning woman in an art museum, the narrator starts to see herself reflected in the art: “When I was supposed to be cleaning, I would look out the windows of the museum, the paintings behind me reflected in the glass. It meant something to me to see myself with them.” Seeing her reflection blurred with the art elevates the narrator’s sense of self. The memory situates the narrator in her own narrative—while she is looking outside herself (through the window, but also at the painting reflected in the window) she is simultaneously staring back at her reflection, gazing within.

While Indelicacy orbits themes of identity, social class, female friendship, creativity, and desire, it is ultimately a story of a woman claiming her freedom. Vitória, the narrator, lives in an unspecified time and place that could be nineteenth century England (she is expected to marry, clean, cook, entertain, and raise children) if it weren’t for the slippage that occurs in details like the books the narrator reads or the art she describes. Where naming a specific year and setting might help ground readers in a narrative, the purposeful ambiguity of Indelicacy creates an eerie unmoored effect. Vitória, like the art she describes, exists both in and out of time.

Vitória’s arc of self-discovery begins when she stops laboring and starts thinking. Throughout the novel, Vitória spurns social norms—she writes when she is supposed to be working, she questions authority, she experiments with drugs. These small but deliberate transgressions are necessary in her process of understanding her own subjectivity. Close friendships are also significant in Vitória’s development. Though the novel is slow to reveal Vitória’s name, her friends, Antoinette and Dana, are named and described in loving detail. We are never told the name of the rich patron from the art museum whom Vitória marries, but we are told the name of their house maid, Solange.

Cain focuses on what matters to Vitória, what she values—writing, reading, art, female friendship, and a desire to live her own life. Often this takes place in quiet, everyday moments: “Lately, I’ve had a vision of drinking a glass of water while lying in a bath. Or a grouping of vegetables on a counter meant for preparing a vegetable soup. I think about the things we need to live.” Introspective, poetic, and full of longing, this passage is reminiscent of another Künstlerroman, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Like Woolf’s Lily Briscoe, who desires “to be on a level with ordinary experience” and yet to also know that “it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy,” so too does Cain’s Vitória desire to see and reflect, to be both inside and outside of the moment. The complication of being present yet also a witness to one’s own life is evident in the following passage:

To be alive and sometimes grieving. To eat dinners and sit in restaurants. To sleep with my husband and then tell Solange which rooms need cleaning. To clean my own study and then read in it. To sit in a dark theater with a lit stage in front of me. To walk with Antoinette and then with Dana. Walking along the lake, the snow falling on my boots, my hat.

The effect, for both Lily and Vitória, is living the complicated struggle while at once being removed from it. Here, the dispassionate distancing allows the subject agency over her alienation.

Imagination connects Vitória to the sacredness of the world. She imagines a life where she no longer has to clean the art museum and she, indeed, is able to have that life with her new rich husband, but not without cost. Her husband tolerates her writing but he is hardly supportive. She lives comfortably, but she feels a tremendous amount of guilt with her new class status whenever she engages with Solange. It isn’t until she befriends Dana, a dancer, that Vitória starts to see just how unhappy she is. Then, one day when she visits an art museum, she begins to feel deserving of freedom and devises a plan.

Indelicacy is a hopeful story, told hauntingly. Vitória says at the beginning that she is stalking her own soul, and certainly, in looking back at her life, there is a sense of mystery and awe. If we think about Vitória imagining herself into being, then it makes sense that her attempt to reflect back and write of this emergence may appear hazy, haunted, a carbon copy of what was. While this troubles memory, it is also the condition of women—any freedom imagined cannot be a freedom outside the patriarchal structure that Vitória was born into.

For Vitória, true freedom is found in the space between artist and world—being in connection to something “flowing” toward something else. The theme of connection and flow recurs throughout the book; notably, in the ballet studios, she says, “when I am here, I am like the streamers. I’m connected to something, but also connected to something else. It is always like that. I am flowing toward it.” It is in this liminal space that Vitória feels most attuned to herself but also connected to something that is not self—her purpose of living and existence, her very being in and of the world rises from a type of nonbeing, as sound from silence.

Like the moment when Vitória sees herself blurred with the art, Indelicacy, too, has this effect on the reader. Now, as I write this, I feel unmoored in time—as much a part of the text as it is of me—yet also strung together in some larger constellation. I feel somehow connected to Vitória at her desk, to the tangelos in a wire basket that hangs in my kitchen, to a past-self whispering with my friend, Sarah Rose, in an art history class over twenty years ago, to my fingers, to this computer, to the structures that both allow and condemn this privilege to write, and also to something that is me and not me—a purpose that propels me forward.

Alissa Hattman is a writer and teacher living in the Pacific Northwest. Her book reviews have appeared in The Rumpus and Big Other and her fiction has been published in Carve, Gravel, Hobart, MAYDAY, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University and an MA in English Literature from Portland State University. More at More from this author →