It’s appropriate that Amina Cain initially situates Vitória, the protagonist of her haltingly beautiful new collection of prosodies, as a cleaning lady in a museum. Her novel, laid out in sections that rarely move beyond a few pages, maintains a fractious semblance of narrative movement throughout. It is in some sense about the escapes available to women in a classist, misogynist universe of few opportunities. Cleaning toilets with her friend and fellow maid Antoinette, among Caravaggios and Goyas, she writes about the images that populate her daily life, until she begins to “feel that I could see my writing—not the words or the paintings—somehow in between. That I had made a new thing.”
It’s not long before she is swept up by an unnamed, rich male visitor to the museum, who she soon marries, and refers to afterward only as “my husband.” Accepting the confines of convention in exchange for the creature comforts afforded by his wealth and social position, including the constant attention of a house servant named Solange, she continues to write despite his tepid exhortations against it. He, ultimately, has a singular desire for offspring. Coddled by the travel, seemingly neverending luxury and constant, enjoyable sex, she slides into a languorous decadence. Seeking entertainment, she takes up ballet and distances herself from her friendship with Antoinette, who she is troubled visiting in her attenuated poverty, and befriends a talented young ballerina named Dana instead.
They become close even as the protagonist drops the classes, and the scene shrinks to a parlor drama that recalls the seclusion of women after a kind of religiously inspired male-chauvinist ideal of feminine purity that must be insulated from the world. All the while, of course, wearing her down to the point where she eventually realizes she “doesn’t have it in me to be kind to someone who saw me only in relation to property and propriety.”
Throughout, her pursuit of writing continues, even as she rediscovers her friendship with Antoinette, who has herself married—though to a much poorer man than Vitória’s husband, with whom she has a seemingly more intimate and gratifying relationship—and slowly shrinks her circle further until she imagines them as if a “drawing of witches and old women; they float in the air and grab onto one another’s clothing. A braid of women, a clump.” Tensions between she and her husband ratchet up as he presses her more and more frequently for a child (and heir), until, inexorably, she plots a way out.
Despite her artistic worshipfulness, while many of Vitória’s relationships with her women friends are supportive, thoughtful and caring, not all are. In the plot to secure her freedom (and fortune), Cain is unsparing in showing just how vicious her lovable and at turns softly calculating protagonist can be in the defense of her stature. It’s easy to lose sight of how the choice she makes, then, is simply the woodwork of the patriarchal forces with whom she is thoroughly surrounded, in this case against an even lesser-statured person of color.
Resolved in a manner unsettling, yet inevitable, given the social hierarchies at play, “Indelicacy” reverberates with an inner, luxe-hazed reflection of moral consciousness best described in a scene where Vitória and her husband first smoke hashish together. While in bed, she gazes across the room at all her fine clothing, and wonders “what right did I have to a bathrobe like that, a towel? There are those who have neither, who must dry off with a pair of old pants. Even the quilt I was lying on was nicer than many of the clothes people got to wear, nicer than my own dresses had been, and something about that was obscene.
“Relax, I told myself. You don’t have to think about this now. There is always tomorrow.” In this moment, echoing her husband’s advice to let go the outside world, she interiorizes and absorbs her own identity into a moment that becomes the basis for the liberated sense of self that she so desperately strives after, and yet will never realize she passed on long ago.
By Amina Cain
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages