By Amina Cain
Dorothy, a publishing project
Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin
"If you read part of this text, you'll only know a little about her. If you read all of this text, you'll still only know a little about her," Amina Cain's nameless narrator in "I Will Force This" thinks as she mounts a text on a gallery wall. The caveat, however, holds true for readers seeking insight into all of Cain's narrators in Creature. In "I Will Force This" and the thirteen other prose pieces that comprise Cain's second book, the stories largely exist within the mind of the narrator, yet still manage to reveal very little about that speaker. "I am trying to show the mind," Cain writes in "Words Come to Me." And so she does.
"So much happens when I am inside my mind, but I still haven't left the floral shop," the same narrator says, summing up much about Creature's plotlines. "Myself, alone in my bed, is a story," she later notes. Most of the stories could, in fact, be that minimalist in plot if not in tone. Cain's narrative structure owes little to Freytag, especially in the last lines of her stories, which don't often have a sense of finality. Because they are so focused on the ways her characters think and because thinking does not end, there is no logical conclusion for most of these pieces. To revisit Cain's fixation on thought itself, here is an excerpt from "Attached to a Self":
What did you do today?
I sat and thought about a thing in so many different ways that I was able to turn it in various directions and look at it. This might be obsession, but if it is, it is a new kind of obsession, a new way for me of being obsessed with something.
Cain's narrators are usually this vague, talking about things as things and avoiding specifics. In "The Beating of My Heart," she writes, "This is the place where your life unfolds. You push something back so the other thing can come forward. This thing is anything, or it is nothing, and you see it be nothing." Because her narrators are generally so vague and share many of the same thinking patterns, it can be difficult to remember which stories are which. Certain ones stand out, though. For example, "Furniture, Table, Chair, Shelves" is distinctive because its narrator is a composer/farmer who composes music about her farming. In this story, the narrator says, "My compositions are complex and moody. They're not pretty, but they allow the listener a deeper relationship to my farm." No direct connection between farming and composing is established, but the juxtaposition of the two makes for an interesting story. This story is particularly compelling in a scene where the narrator watches musicians perform and, when the music gets too loud, has disturbing ideations: "If I picture dancers now they are completely in crisis. They are violent criminals wearing costumes dyed a deep red. To picture this makes me nervous, as if I will be attacked before I return to the farm."
Perhaps mind-body dualism necessitates that characters this fixated on their minds would have difficult, distanced relationships to their bodies. The characters observe their own bodies as they observe other phenomena without really seeming to identify with their bodies. In "Gentle Nights" Cain writes, "The body remembers. The body wants to have its own relationship. The mind will have to say something about it afterward, or, sometimes the mind doesn't have to say anything at all." And later, "I take off my blouse and study my armpit and then my stomach," the narrator of "There's an Excess" notes.
There are two instances in which the narrator's relationship to her body is distorted to an extreme. In "Furniture, Table, Chair, Shelves," the narrator tells us, "Tonight I am an insect, a book, a VERY LARGE PLANT. Do you know what that's like? It means I am light, pensive, and finally bigger than life. The one time I engaged in a sitting meditation my hands grew. They were huge. This was only a sensation." And in "The Beating of My Heart," the narrator is an actress who plays the role of a woman who dies of an infected foot so she must wear a very large prosthetic foot. In the middle of post-performance ruminations, the narrator notes, "I don't take off the foot, for it is the meaning of my life." Cain's emphasis on characters who are estranged from their own bodies serves mostly to underscore how focused the narrators are on their own minds, how much of their lives is internal. The dissociation does not seem rooted in self-hatred but instead in a kind of curiosity, making one's own body just another thing to be studied and processed.
As part of their vagueness, Cain's characters seldom explain their frequent, grand pronouncements. "Time opens up and you don't know what you're seeing. Or how anyone feels," the actress muses. "I spent a whole day reading a book in my kitchen. I knew I would never be able to talk to anyone about it," the narrator of "The Beak of a Bird" says.
In having so many stories which forego plot to focus more largely on the internal monologues of women who seem estranged from the world, Cain risks each story being an individual experience. Rather, they tend to run together, and it can be hard to remember which lines come from which story. The possible exception to this is "Tramps Everywhere," which is told more as a screenplay. Oddly enough, though, "Tramps Everywhere" makes the reader miss the familiar narrator, and the screenplay form feels out of place among the gloriously vague thoughts of Cain's other speakers.
Cain takes a lot of risks in her book by redefining plot and creating so many narrators who are unknowable and generally unfamiliar. But the risks pay off in sheer beauty, and in Creature, she has created a beautiful monster indeed.