Agnès Varda writes in The Beaches of Agnès, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. We’d discover beaches if we cracked me open. In order to create a hybrid that has many resonances of truth, Varda tried to blur the lines between fiction and documentary. The beaches and this sensitive blending are both reflected in A Horse at Night, Amina Cain’s debut nonfiction novel. Beaches from Cain’s past and future, as well as works by Marguerite Duras and Elena Ferrante, among others, are overlaid. For better or worse, I’ve always blended locations, living in one area while daydreaming of another, according to Cain.In Cain’s mind, the settings that authors conjure up, the memories of adored characters, as well as their emotions and impulses, are alive and well. In Cain’s eyes, fictitious characters and actual friends are equally present and conversing with each other about her everyday routine.
A Horse at Night is a slim, essayistic book that takes the reader on a journey through the literature and visual art that Cain is inspired by, from the works of Toni Morrison, Rachel Cusk, and Virginia Woolf through Chantal Akerman and David Lynch. Paintings, etchings, prints, performance art pieces, fragments of moving images, and other media appear and go. A conversation between various perceptions develops, coming into focus while eluding comprehension. She admits that she occasionally tries to make things seem in her own fiction even when it isn’t there. This holds true for her nonfiction as well. This book might be thought of in some respects as an interiority gallery—deep and shifting with nebulous impulses and dispositions.
In A Horse at Night, fiction and nonfiction are combined in a way that is delicate and gritty around the edges. Moving through this material is similar to taking a walk in the dark while your eyes are resting on changing shapes. Cain proceeds through many observations of time and shape in the chapter “Coming back from near sleep, a painting,” including how the light varies throughout the day and what it implies for her walks and how time may imply several things at once. She remembers going to see Christian Marclay’s piece, The Clock, which is centred on a continuously recurring montage made up of scenes from more than a thousand films. A movie sequence displaying the current minute on a clock or watch appears every minute.I watched the movie from 10:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., and I was mesmerised by the images of them getting ready to go or being outside and skulking about a building.Some folks wind down at night while others wind up. This line of thinking leads us to Jinny, a character in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, who is having a good time on a night out when she notices the opposing rhythms of existence, waking, and sleeping. Chimney pots against the sky and streetlights shining into the peaceful vastness stand out in the stillness as beacons of human life seeking security. In a piece that discusses her experiences with despair, Cain ponders how pleasant a desert is after dusk, when even a cactus might appear soft. She seamlessly transitions between personal observation, art critique, and memoir snippets.
The reader is given a tour through Cain’s mental landscapes when she says, “I have always taken warmth into the cold.” In times that teeter between danger and safety, like a fire on an iced-over river in Helen Humphrey’s The Frozen Thames, she delves into the tension between hostile circumstances and comforting moorings. Given the close relationship between ASMR and meditation and Cain’s enthusiasm for zazen, it is not unexpected that Cain’s narratives have a sensory logic that at times feels like ASMR. She discusses how she started practising zazen and writing at the same time, as well as how the chanting of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism have helped her;I believe they unlock a part of me that no other object can, enlightening not only my time spent in meditation but also my perception of reality.
In reference to the scene she adores in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, she says, “To be in a warm bath and exposed to a storm at the same time.” This specific type of submersion is evoked by Cain as a picture of reading, of the ability of literature to exist as mood, and of how art permeates inner life while continuing to engage cognition. Cain conjures up a kind of sensory osmosis through these gradations of being and pathways of feeling. On a molecular level, everything is interconnected, and places, animals, and plants all mimic one another’s atmospheres. Cain’s statements have a hint of quantum physics.As she reads, she imagines meeting spots and gentle transformational spaces like the sound of the waves and the warmth of the beach “coming together with the text.” Like Ferrante’s protagonist Leda in The Lost Daughter or Cain’s own narrator in Indelicacy, she thinks about her experiences of being present and absent with friends on a beach in Malibu, dreaming of beaches in Costa Rica and Martinique, projecting books onto the horizon, and seeing herself reflected back in the vast expanse of the water. It’s a contemplative tuning into the sensory sense of being, maybe in several locations at once; a fluid, porous present.
Her vision’s contours take shape like movie frames, conveying the mood of the time. Cain amazes in double-meanings through scenic and filmic means. Would new facets of myself emerge if I lived a different life? Her writing retains tension and ambiguity in a way that conjures the textures of visual art. She also uses background elements in her stories, such as an oil light that flickers inside a window during a rainstorm (the warmth in the cold), a list of the furniture in the room, or a statement that simply says, “This scenario is longer than it looks.”An object is seldom there by mistake, but its importance is unfixed, just as mis-en-scene in film or the arrangement of a picture. Cain demonstrates how other things appear even if they might not be seen via patience and focus.
Higher states of consciousness frequently appear in household settings and struggle just below the surface. In The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, Cain exposes a character named Macabéa who is “fed by her daydreams” and who leaves her office desk to have solitary moments of ecstasy by herself in a restroom. Cain delights in solitary moments of secret pleasure, like a character in an Edward Hopper painting. Cain’s earlier works, Creature and Indelicacy, depict drives that echo in this most recent piece; narrators engaged in passionate conversation with their own wants.We meet individuals with an odd edge, who alternate between terse impulses with a hint of violence and a strange inquiry — possibly with an echo of the sexual drive she admires in Annie Ernaux, whose sentence constructions match the intense obsession they carry. Cain explores the peculiarities and mental processes of the self that are borderline absurd: In Indelicacy, the protagonist’s buddy declares, “I want a swimming suit,” as the two are strolling near a lake. The narrator muses, “I don’t want to hear a person’s voice during this type of moment.
Cain occasionally ends her sentences with an eccentric remark that reads like a red herring in her own writing. When Cain adds a further detail to the fact that she had re-read a Ferrante novel in her late forties, she says, “The first time had been a few years before that.” Cain’s language is so exact that I wonder whether this is one of the places she buries things. Although it seems like a little detail, Cain finds that it sticks with him. Or maybe this is a part of her quest for authenticity, a real search for the parts of herself that are cut out and hidden in the background.Cain examines the relationship—or lack thereof—between our innermost thoughts and how we behave outside of ourselves.It “makes me rethink what I believe about myself too, and how it could be different from what I actually am, about the difference between what I think and feel and what I sometimes do,” she says of Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life.
A Horse at Night is Cain’s unfinished journal. It engages in conversation with the way we live today, which is marked by electronic distractions, a sweltering environment, economic inequality, and many interpretations of what it means to be present. Additionally, it is a collage book and a multi-layered piece of art. Cain goes back and forth between concepts, returning to the palimpsests and portraits that Renee Gladman used to create her “writing-drawing.” Her writing is a tribute to the mutually beneficial exchange of experience between art and life. As a writer and reader, she is lost and pondering the reader and what is beyond the page.We are as full of memories of our experiences and the people we know as we are of the fictions of art and the truths they contain. The reader is being urged by Cain through this litany to go further and deeper into the details until they take on a new meaning: “The best sorts of description generate feeling, and not simply emotional sensation, but a sense of something else, a different kind of knowing.” A Horse at Night inspires a desire to travel in the dark toward the uncharted, to jot down details in the ether, and to write.