Indelicacy by Amina Cain
There’s a terrific 1939 painting by Edward Hopper called “New York Movie.” It’s divided, though not quite halved, into two fields: on the left of the canvas, the shadowy elegance of a mid-century movie theater, featuring seated viewers and the glow of a film. On the right, a beautiful woman waits in the wings, awash in golden light by a nearby sconce. She’s an usher, but she looks almost anticipatory, like a Hollywood-style rendez-vous is merely hours from playing out. A date, perhaps? Or maybe someone stood her up? It becomes more exciting to project a narrative onto this woman than to imagine any details of the film flickering away on the other side of the painting: she’s the real story. Who is she? Is she dreaming of a different life, of becoming a movie star?
This kind of speculation is a common theme in all sorts of figurative art: artists often not only depict a scene but provide the basis for a narrative to evolve between the viewer and the people depicted on the canvas. Mysterious women in particular have appeared in centuries of paintings, leaving scholars and casual viewers to speculate about the nuances of a subtle smile, an elegant pose, or the tired loneliness of a youthful gaze.
It’s a curious jump from visual art to a textual narrative — rife with possibility, all while remaining closely cropped to one particular scene. Hopper’s usher can be anything we imagine, for example, but she will always also be an usher, waiting in the wings of a particular Manhattan theater. We can project countless stories, but will never be able to liberate that subject from one particular visual rendering.
In her fascinating short novel Indelicacy, Amina Cain attempts to disrupt the flow of this fine art narrative. Instead of how a figurative painting can generate an array of stories, her novel reads like an infinity of paintings in search of a life. It’s an often disjointed and difficult read, but one that creates a significant new approach to narrative in a style unlike most anything in contemporary literature. “Writing is endless,” Cain writes, “what it allows you to consider. What is in paintings is endless too.”
Vitória, a cleaner at an unnamed museum, receives a marriage proposal from a wealthy visitor. She accepts, but later leaves him, drawn to the allure of becoming a writer. While working at the museum, she had spent hours reflecting on the paintings, on what they meant and the stories they conjured. Her husband offered her a charmed life of riches and leisure, but stifled that part of her mind that required critical, independent thinking. They separate, and she moves to a small cabin where she cultivates quiet but curiously intimate friendships with a few women, including housekeepers of her own.
Short scenes unfold in staggered prose, all of which feel as if they could be freeze-framed into a master painting. In one, she’s a lone woman languishing in a drawing room; elsewhere she’s well-dressed taking in chamber music. “Here was a woman in a stunning emerald dress,” Cain abruptly writes in one description, “a white feather sticking out of her hat like a warning.” Walking through the city, “each doorway…its own theater of something, with its own suggestion of promise.”
Vitória’s life, both the one she lives and the one she observes, feels familiar — it is that of the countless women who appear in fine art paintings. At the ballet, she marvels at the sets: “I wanted to go inside the wooden buildings meant to conjure the street of a village. I was there in that village, though I was still also in my seat, completely taken in, the way I was so often taken in by scenes in paintings.”
She works on a book throughout the novel, and like Indelicacy, it’s an unexplored frontier. “I began to feel that I could see my writing — not the words or the paintings — somehow in between. That I had made a new thing.” “The problem was,” she later confesses, “that it would make little sense to most people, and how would that work out? Everyone always wants sense.”
Indelicacy is a challenge but it buzzes with something of great importance: Cain is at work on an exceptional maneuver, some narrative sleight of hand that could potentially shift how we all look at art and stories. “In every painting, someone or something emerges,” she explains. In Indelicacy Vitória begins as a nameless woman — a visual, narrative motif, like the usher in the Hopper painting. Similar to how her husband sees her, Cain allows her readers to render this woman a particular way, mold her into the origin of a number of possibilities. But somewhere along the way, Vitória takes control of her own story, and emerges, unexpectedly, from the canvas and into something confoundingly real: “I emerged walking along these dull streets, close to my own mind and what I know of life. Close to my blind spots, my limitations as a person, the limits of what I can perceive, at least for now.” Like an existential philosopher, she sees herself, gazes inward: “I am deeply flawed.”