An Artist of the Floating World

Indelicacy BY Amina Cain. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 176 pages. $25.

The cover of Indelicacy

In her essay “Something Has Brought Me Here,” Amina Cain, the author of two story collections and now the novel Indelicacy, speaks of her preoccupation with the affinities between landscape painting and literature. “Whenever I read a novel,” she begins, “narrative has been impressing itself more and more visually in my mind. Or maybe it’s that my mind has gone more and more toward these fictional visions. Even though I’m a writer, it’s not always language I’m drawn to.” In an interview with fellow writer Renee Gladman, Cain presents her fixation as a question: “Can a story be like a painting?” The question, phrased as it is, can be interpreted variously. What about a painting is the story meant to be compared to? Its elements of color, space, line, or texture? Its qualities of flatness or iconicity, fixity or plasticity? Is the painting abstract or figurative?

Read enough of Cain and her question, oblique at first, begins to resonate. The strange, arresting stories in her books Creature (2013) and I Go to Some Hollow (2009) are compressed the way a painting is compressed, framed the way a painting is framed. Her narratives often stop abruptly, as if reaching the edge of a canvas; beyond them a wider world—of romances upended, friendships under strain, a cousin slapped across the face—is evoked but not always explained. The stories tend to train the gaze of their narrators on the small and mundane, landing more often on quiet images—bathwater filling a tub, snow being stamped from boots, vegetables carried from truck to pantry—than on the points of plot or resolution that are the more conventional staples of narrative fiction. To look at a painting is to perceive a moment that is static: A painting can hint at a world outside its edges, but it does not need to; it does not exist to further a plot, to set up another scene, to propel a story forward. In her stories Cain seemed to ask, and to try to answer, whether writing can linger in these still spaces, outside of narrative, and, even so, be called fiction. With Indelicacy, she asks this same question, this time working within the more expansive form of the novel.

Unlike many of Cain’s stories, Indelicacy does not forgo plot altogether, but it does continue to frame the story line in ways that leave much of the information outside the reader’s view. The narrator is Vitória, who works as a cleaning woman at an unnamed art museum in an unnamed city. Between mopping floors and scrubbing walls, she pauses to admire the paintings: Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation, Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s Margaretha van Haexbergen. In the evenings, at home in her small, bare apartment, she sits at her kitchen table and marks down what she has observed during the day. Vitória is friends with another cleaner, Antoinette, and the two commiserate about their meager lives, imagining others. Antoinette longs to be married; Vitória wants to be a writer. She has not published anything. “To say that I was a maid would probably have been a more accurate way to explain who I was,” she observes. On winter days when the cold is not too bitter, Vitória leaves home without her coat, ashamed of its ugliness. Of her past, we know little; she grew up in a house “crowded with babies and yelling” and tries “not to remember her family.”

Caravaggio, Sette opere di Misericordia (The Seven Works of Mercy) (detail), ca. 1607, oil on canvas, 8' 4" × 12' 6". Wikicommons
Caravaggio, Sette opere di Misericordia (The Seven Works of Mercy) (detail), ca. 1607, oil on canvas, 8' 4" × 12' 6". Wikicommons

Then, as in a fairy tale, Vitória trades poverty for opulence. In the coatroom of the museum a man strikes up a conversation. He is wealthy and handsome and before long they are married. Cain dispenses with the meeting, the courtship, the wedding in a few sentences. They are, as in a painting, portrayed but not explained. But we get the general idea: This is a novel about the “happily ever after.” Only the “ever after” is not so happy. Although Vitória savors her lavish new home, with its many rooms and tall windows, the arbitrariness of her change of fortune weighs on her conscience. “What right did I have to a bathrobe like that, a towel?” she asks of items easy to take for granted. “There are those who have neither.”

The novel, not realist exactly, but not fantastical either, exists somewhere in between, and the earliest clues arrive by way of setting. We learn that there are candles in every window and carriages on the road, and there is no mention of telephones or cars or computers or typewriters—a setting fit for a Victorian marriage plot or domestic drama. And yet there is nothing to mark the novel as historical or as being about the past. On the contrary, Vitória’s free movement around the city, the pattern of her desires, feels contemporary. The book could be set in the nineteenth century or in the twenty-second. It is as if it exists in a strange no-place, which is perhaps Cain’s way of indicating that the story she is about to tell is ageless, even outside of time.

It could also be Cain’s way of gesturing toward these earlier Victorian genres at the same time that she is about to unsettle them. It is not giving anything away to say that the marriage will not last. In the opening pages, Vitória has already left her husband and is living in the country. The rest of the story is told in retrospect. From the beginning, then, we know the marriage will end—which makes reading the book like the experience of viewing a painting from a distance, seeing the whole of it at once, and then stepping forward to examine subtler details. These subtler details are not what one might expect; for a novel whose ostensible plot is about a woman getting married, and marrying up, no less, few words are devoted to the relationship, to what wife and husband say to or do with each other. We learn that he works and plays cards and wants to spoil his wife with material things, but otherwise he is something of a cipher, present mostly as an absence. Unlike the female characters, all of whom are named after protagonists in other works of literature—Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jean Genet’s The Maids, Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea—the wealthy man has no name at all; he is referred to by the narrator only as “my husband.” Sex is the one aspect of her marriage she takes pleasure in. It is also the one aspect that she can be in control of. “He always had sex the way I wanted,” she remarks, recalling a night where she tied him to a chair. (The moment jolts a little—partly because Vitória is before then silent on the nature of the erotic charge between her and her husband; and, too, because it contrasts to the desire for submission much explored in recent fiction by women, such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) When Vitória stops wanting to have sex with her husband, she knows it is time to leave.

If Vitória is not preoccupied with thoughts of her relationship, it is because Cain has given her narrator other interests: what she sees, not only in the world around her but also in her mind. Daydreaming, she sees Antoinette “lounging in a tropical place . . . sitting in a chair among plants, having her portrait painted,” and her “friend Dana walking in a city with desertlike mountains next to it and then in a lush green field.” When Vitória attends a party for Dana’s birthday, she recounts little of what takes place there, sharing instead her reveries. “I saw scenes of winter, I saw myself writing in the winter.” Even the narrator’s own writing, which we glimpse in fragments, becomes something “seen.” “I began to feel that I could see my writing,” she remarks. “Not the words or the paintings—somehow in between. That I had made a new thing.” Vitória, in being dependent on her husband, may be unable to exercise control over much, but she can take charge of what she pays attention to; she can assume control of her own mind.

It’s in these moments, where the narrator steps outside of the story’s drama, detouring from the plot to find stillness or reverie or stay with an experience, that Indelicacy can be said to be most like a painting. Sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the narrator’s interest in painting from Cain’s, which in a way directs our attention to the author sitting outside the novel’s frame. Of a remembered scene, Vitória writes, “The green grass combined with the pink sky. A restaurant lit brightly. But the restaurant is one feeling, the grass another,” echoing Cain’s interest in the relationship between landscape and sensation or mood. Of a painting of a man and a small boy working on an engraving, the narrator writes, “We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?” It’s as if the journal, with its impressionistic fragments, its airy subtleties, its static moments external to the narrative of the novel—external to any narrative—is a guide as to how the novel should be read.

The story of a marriage is generally meant to impose order on the novel, to subordinate each moment to a larger design. In Indelicacy, this story finds itself subordinate to other forms of female pleasure and desire: friendship, sex, dancing, writing, daydreaming. Vitória’s detours, her attention to her own inattention, to the still, sensuous details of daily living, become gentle acts of defiance—against not only the marriage plot but plot altogether. Indelicacy ends on a note of muted transformation, with Vitória now closer to claiming the identity of being a writer. “Sometimes I am immersed in my writing, ecstatic; sometimes I am able to write only one paragraph. On certain days I hate that paragraph.” It’s exactly what a writer would say.

Sarah Resnick’s writing has appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies.