Amina Cain has blessed her debut collection of stories, I Go To Some Hollow, with a title that is unashamedly gorgeous in its sounds and rhythms. It’s an impressively lyrical phrase to find on a book cover, and one that strongly suggests that the author will apply a poet’s loving attention to wordcraft to the language of the fiction contained within.
Although several of Cain’s stories do include occasional bright flashes of beautiful phrasing, her prose more commonly offers a chilly, plainlyspoken elegance instead. This tone is in fact well-suited to Cain’s primary subject matter: her stories revolve around the disconnection, emotional distance, and incomprehension that her characters feel while attempting (and largely failing) to reach some kind of understanding about the nature of their lives and relationships.
Cain does not attempt to dramatize her characters’ alienation, boredom, and confusion; instead, her stories mimic her characters’ quiet disaffection. Throughout I Go To Some Hollow, Cain indulges in a stylistic stillness, passivity, and emptiness that, while artful, sensitive, and sometimes moving, is frequently more than a little dull.
The typical protagonist in I Go To Some Hollow wants very little and remains unperturbed when she gets even less. In “A Body Walking Through Space”, a vegetarian briefly considers making the nice gesture of purchasing fresh fish for her roommate Kiki, but then decides against it. “I almost bought a fish for you,” she tells Kiki, and Kiki seems no less pleased than if the narrator had actually brought one home. Kiki, meanwhile, makes impractical dresses for the narrator by hand — and the narrator is grateful for these gifts, even though she admits that she will probably never wear them.
In “Homesteading”, delegates at an international conference converse about the unusual sight of children ice skating on a warm day. “I can’t explain it,” one delegate says to the other, attempting unsuccessfully to communicate what he thinks or how he feels to anyone else. Such moments abound in Cain’s stories — non-events in which people fail to make connections with each other or else decide not to even bother. Similarly, her characters often engage in brief, half-hearted struggles to understand what is going on around them, and then give up on the whole enterprise with a shrug and sigh.
At her best, Cain does a remarkable job of precisely evoking the way her characters feel as they give themselves over to the experience of some small, mundane mystery. In “A Body Walking Through Space”, Cain captures the strange wonder of an essentially insignificant moment: “She snapped off the overhead light,” Cain writes in her narrator’s mostly-uninterested voice, “and for a moment we stayed in the darkness together, me still sitting on the edge of the bathtub, her by the sink.” Cain’s greatest strength comes in her ability to observe moments like this one, which most writers would dismiss as too tiny to be worth noting at all.
Sometimes Cain also animates her stories with satisfyingly unconventional takes on the oddities of intimacy. In “Black Wings”, which opens the collection, the protagonist decides to attempt to find out “what it is like to be asexual,” and enters into an affair with a man with whom she intends to do nothing except read books. Although her new boyfriend agrees to the idea of sexless companionship, sex dominates their relationship all the same: in fact, their every interaction is shot through the tension they feel because of sex’s notable absence. This is a smart observation — and it is also the kind of insight that unfortunately remains out of reach for the majority of Cain’s characters, who tend to understand themselves no better at the end of a story than at its start.
Other stories contain the seeds of fascinating ideas, but ultimately become derailed by Cain’s impulse toward spareness. In “Something I Never Finished”, the narrator momentarily ponders the strangeness inherent in a praying mantis eating one of its own kind. The idea seems ripe for further development, but Cain neglects to give it sufficient attention. “Eating is such a simple, strange thing,” she writes, squandering an intriguing notion by expressing it in an awkward and overly simplistic fashion.
Cain deserves credit for the sincerity of her enterprise: because she seems genuinely interested in her characters’ emptiness, boredom, and confusion, I Go To Some Hollow rarely suffers from empty formalism or pretension, even as Cain assiduously avoids employing conventional tools of fiction like plot, character development, and motivation.
Still, as her characters go about, venturing little and gaining nothing, restless in their skins, yet uninterested in altering the status quo, Cain gives readers no particular reason to become involved in their stories. The appeal of I Go To Some Hollow rests entirely in whatever small pleasure readers might eke out while attempting to share the dissatisfaction, incomprehension, and boredom experienced by her characters.