Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
09 July 2007
Before we get to wondering, let's talk about some wonders.
The wonder that is Elizabeth Hand's prose, for instance, the sort of prose that might get called meaty, as if we could sink our teeth into it, as if it's just this side of raw—the tough prose of a tough character, and that's the wonder: the pitch-perfect voice of a post-punk punk singing to us from off the page. Generation Loss is piped full of music, and not just in the references to Patti Smith or the Ramones or all the other bands that soundtrack the memories and emotions of the narrator, but in the words themselves, the cadences that riff and reverberate between each clause, sentence, and paragraph. It could have been some hand-me-down hardboiled patois from Raymond Chandler's back pages, but instead it's less flashy and more subtle, offering artful shifts of rhythm and precise imagery that seldom strains for its effects:
It was a weird place; what you'd imagine a fairy tale would look like if you fell into one. They gave me a bad feeling, all those trees. When I touched one the bark wasn't damp but wet and slimy. It seemed to give beneath my finger, like skin.
It creeped me out.
I used to like that feeling, I used to hunt that feeling down. For a second, I thought of getting out my camera and hunting it again. (p. 73)
Our narrator is Cassandra Nearing, and she's another wonder, a survivor of a lifetime of hangovers and hangers-on, a famous-for-fifteen-seconds photographer, a relic and a ruin now working in the stock room of the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, an expert on damage. As protagonists go, she's about as far from heroic as it's possible to get without becoming a villain, but she's too passive and pathetic to be malicious, and we watch her like an excruciatingly prolonged car crash, the metal crushed, the windows shattered, but as of yet no smoke or blood. Though she shouldn't be, she's endearing, and the novel moves along at a rapid pace because Cass's voice is so clear, so sharp—which is to say, Hand's words are perfectly in tune, even if the song they sing is something akin to a pile of speakers getting ready to explode. It's the sound of skies falling.
The skies that Elizabeth Hand has charted in the past have mostly been fantastical ones, but it would take some real stretching to categorize Generation Loss as fantasy, though perhaps the hints of Cass's vaguely paranormal powers would do in a pinch. The tone of the tale is often that of a quiet horror story, and there are plenty of mysterious chords sounded, but at its heart this seeks to be a chronicle of the way we live now. For as long as it lasts, this ambiguity of genre is exciting. The ambiguity seems to capture so many different levels of the characters' lives, because these are people who don't know what sort of story they belong in. (It's only when the book settles down in its final chapters to being something much more ordinary, with clearer boundaries and expectations, that it disappoints.)
Cass is a refugee from a lost generation, the generation of the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols, of Television and Blondie, of Performance Studio and CBGBs. Her passions were born in the latter days of Arbus and the early days of Mapplethorpe, but she never quite became who she should have been, because death was her best muse, and she couldn't whistle a happy tune and wander away from all the pills and potions that crossed her lips. Even her loves got lost, the last one vanishing in acrimony and then, on the brink of reconciliation, the World Trade Center, a personal loss amidst a global one.
Loss is not confined to the title alone, but the title cues the ideas that are the novel's theme song:
Generation loss—that's what happens when you endlessly reproduce a photographic image. You lose authenticity, the quality deteriorates in each subsequent generation that's copied from the original negative, and the original itself decays with time, so that every new image is a more degraded version of what you started with. (p. 28)
The authenticity is gone—the authenticity of the scene that first inspired Cass's art, and with it the authenticity of that art. In a last-ditch attempt at life, she accepts a dodgy offer to interview one of the photographers who most inspired her, a recluse named Aphrodite Kamestos. She'll have to go to a little island in Maine for this assignment, but it's a good excuse to get out of New York, and there's a chance she might get to see the original prints of the pictures that so enthralled her all those years ago, and she might even learn why Aphrodite seemingly gave up her love, why she has not produced a photograph in decades. She'll meet strange natives and unreconstructed hippies, she'll uncover secrets, drink gallons of Jack Daniels and pop some ADD-generation speed, watch her dreams and idols die, fall in something resembling the possibility of love, and locate a serial killer—all in the course of finding herself.
This is where I move from admiring the wonders to wondering about what's going on here. Because after all the setting of the scenes, the lovely and not-one-word-out-of-place evocations of island life, the meditations on loss in all its forms, the eerie menace and hints of pasts pregnant with rot ... after all this, we get a low-grade horror movie badguy, an absurd chase scene in a boat, and lifetimes of loose ends tied up tighter than a sailor's knot. A novel that through its first two-thirds draws electricity from the machines of a thriller breaks down in its final third and lets the machines take over, until they sputter out and leave us with the stench of predictable outcomes and the smoke of redemptive psychologizing. Damage gets repaired in displacement, and the jukebox jumps from Sid Vicious to Barry Manilow.
Perhaps the ending of Generation Loss is a comment on the endings that seem to befall many artists who survived the edges of their earlier days—the screamers and thrashers who late in life discover ballads and multi-platinum pap, the poets whose hatred for injustice cools to a quest for the best gym, the radical fairies who get all ex-gay, the photographers who once couldn't get into a gallery and now can't get out of Vogue.
The Romantic image of the artist as sufferer gets its enamel deservedly scraped off in this novel, because we see that suffering is not ennobling or energizing, that the quest for authenticity as often leads to paralysis as momentum, that a psyche isn't purified by death any more than it's balanced by pills or booze. It's too bad that the ending is a weak concoction, but it's hard to say that's not the way of the world, with all that is richly strange and queer so often finishing up a pale imitation of itself, straightened out and given familiar (if ridiculous) shape. That's what the book's about, after all, but it's too bad that instead of embodying its title it's not able to admit that all thrills are goners, all mysteries killed when the yearning for order and answers overcomes the knowledge that chaos is the norm.
Or maybe it's just that so much of Generation Loss is vivid, entrancing, and, indeed, authentic that the later moments couldn't help but struggle to live up to the earlier ones, much as Cass and so many of the other characters struggle to live up to the promise (and promises) of their youth. Just as lives that are only momentarily brilliant deserve celebration and respect, though, so do such novels, because life is dark enough that we need whatever illumination we can get, and there's plenty to be had in Generation Loss.