Friday, July 12, 2019

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

“Bleak is beautiful”

I've had good reading luck in the past few years. Last year I found Sara Gran, Caitlin Kiernan, George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke. The year before that was Christopher Isherwood. The year before that was Lavie Tidhar. And so on. So far this year it is Jill Lepore and now Elizabeth Hand.

At the suggestion of someone in a Facebook group earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Wylding Hall, which was a great short folk horror novel. It was structured as an oral history of the recording of a seminal (but fictional) folk album at a remote rented mansion, and the disappearance of one of the main songwriters that happened after the recording. It was a very good novel, and I wanted to read more by her.

I chose Generation Loss because the description reminded me of the Claire Dewitt books by Sara Gran. That’s not an entirely bad comparison. An ex-punk who is now in middle age? Check. Depression? Check. Stealing meds from friends’ and acquaintances’ medicine cabinets? Check. Bleakness? Check. But those are surface similarities. Claire Dewitt is on a quasi-mystical mystery quest. Cass Neary is on a journey to the bleak center of existence and wants to turn that into art, despite her attraction to nihilism. They are two of my favorite narrators/characters I’ve discovered in recent years. I would give a slight edge to Dewitt at this point, but that could change when I get to the sequels and/or reread this.

There’s a quasi-autobiographical aspect to this. Like Neary, Hand dropped out of school when she saw Patti Smith (IIRC, unidentified in the book) and essentially joined the punk movement. Neary’s art is photography rather than weird fiction, but that impulse is there. Given how well she describes the process of photography (The novel takes its title from the process by which each set of photographs taken from negatives loses quality), I’d bet Hand has taken good photos herself. I also suspect that they’ve experienced similar trauma based on how well it’s portrayed in the book, but I don’t want to say that for sure. Neary becomes briefly famous in the late 70’s or early 80’s for a series of photos of dead people, herself and early punk icons. Now that she’s seemingly flamed out at life and is reaching middle age, she is given an assignment to go photograph and interview another aging player in the outsider art photograph world who lives on an isolated island off of the coast of Maine. She is reluctant but needs the money. As Neary enters the world of the residents of the island she is drawn into some real darkness. I won’t summarize any further to avoid spoilers, but it is bleak, beautiful and brutal.

Hand came to prominence writing SF/Fantasy stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Even though there’s not much in the way of the supernatural here, Hand creates an atmosphere that feels surreal and fantastical. She’s as bleak as anything in McCarthy or Ellroy (both of whom I like very much), but she’s more open to talking about the process of creating meaning through art than they are (though they certainly practice it). That kept it from tipping into full nihilism, at least as far as I can understand the novel on my first reading. This is a book I will return to after I’ve read more of her work. I’ve had a good reading year, but this got to me in a way that puts it among the best books I’ve read for the first time this year, and is a contender for the best in that category.*

Canon-Worthy (heavy content warning)

*The other contenders as of this writing are The Peripheral by William Gibson, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, or Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Best of Caitlin Kiernan, and Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez aren’t far behind.

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