Generation Loss is a foray into, for lack of a better term, “mainstream” fiction by Elizabeth Hand, many of whose previous novels have been marked by a decidedly mordant view of humanity (an attitude this one shares) and somewhere in the works, an apocalypse of some sort or another. They have also pretty much been easily identifiable as “science fiction.” The fantastic elements here, however, are the people and circumstances — the world at large is fairly normal, if not very pretty — and if there’s been an apocalypse, it’s been intimate and incremental.
Cassandra Neary is, to put it bluntly, a loser. A denizen of New York’s punk scene of the 1980s, she had her 15 minutes of fame as a photographer whose images dwelt on death and decay — she could see other people’s damage in their faces, and managed to capture it on film. Then the scene died, and Cass’s life pretty much died with it, climaxed by a brutal rape at 4 a.m. outside CBGB’s, in which we learn one telling aspect of Cass’ character: she didn’t fight back. For the past twenty years or so, she continued not to fight back, working at the Strand Bookstore as a stock clerk, stealing whatever catches her fancy that won’t be noticed, and subsisting as much on booze and drugs as anything else. Now in her late 40s, she’s still drinking, popping pills, and going home with strangers.
Then a friend, Phil Cohen — Cass can call him a “friend,” or at least what passes for one in this milieu — she can get drugs from him — makes an offer she can’t refuse: interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a photographer who disappeared into an artists’ colony in Maine decades ago. It’s an actual paying gig, and Kamestos created a series of images that Cass swears changed her life. Given the way things tend to work for Cass, it’s not really so surprising that when she arrives at the island on the coast of Maine that contains the remains of the colony, Kamestos, and a few other odds and ends, Kamestos denies knowing Phil, denies having agreed to be interviewed, and when it comes right down to it, pretty much denies the existence of the outside world.
The meat of this novel is Hand’s merciless examination of Cass and the people around her, particularly the inhabitants of the island and the town of Burnt Harbor, on the mainland. Hand’s not taking sides, that much is plain. It’s an extreme place, with its harsh conditions and inhabitants who do what they have to do to get by — empty liquor bottles are a recurring motif in this story. They don’t take to outsiders very much, either, and there’s a missing girl to complicate matters for Cass, who was the last one to see her, although only in passing, on the road at night as Cass was driving by.
There is magic here, but it’s not within the story: it’s Hand’s prose. She’s overcome, to a large extent, her habit of burying the story under words, and Cass’ spare, uninflected narration brings it home vividly and without excess. As distanced as Cass is (and more on that in a moment), the narrative comes right at you — you don’t really have time to duck.
It strikes me, thinking about this book, that if this is “mainstream,” it’s mainstream as defined by Thomas Pynchon rather than, say, Ernest Hemmingway. I’ve admired Hand’s ability to take a given reality to its logical conclusion, and she’s really done that here: the reality is Cass Neary in the 1980s, and the logical conclusion is Cass Neary now. Cass is not an admirable character, but there’s little that’s admirable about her past: she’s adrift, a petty thief, and I’m not sure whether she’s a borderline sociopath who’s not quite sure where she ends and other people begin, or if she just doesn’t connect at all. The basic functions of humanity, at least on an emotional level, seem to have passed her by. There’s a revealing scene early on, when Cass passes a kid in the alley outside a club. He’s OD’d, and is lying there dead. Cass’ reaction is, as we come to understand, typical for her if no one else: she takes a series of pictures, then goes on her way. And when the scene shifts to Maine and the story develops, Hand has brought in an element of gothic horror — nothing sticks out, particularly, but it’s there.
And given all that, as much as I welcome happy, or at least hopeful endings, I’m not sure I believe this one. There’s nothing so blatant as a real change in Cass, only the possibility. And being Cass Neary, of course, she won’t grab an opportunity that presents itself, except one key opportunity that’s more or less forced on her: she finally fights back. But that’s necessity, although I found myself wondering why she just didn’t go ahead and surrender, the way she had always done. But, when it comes right down to it, people do surprising things when survival is the issue. I didn’t expect her to suddenly go tripping into the magical castle to live happily ever after, but it seems as if she might get her act together. That’s a big “if,” though, and Hand isn’t giving us any help with it, which is the way it should be: if you’re going to come up with an answer, you need to think about it.
I’ll be perfectly blunt: I don’t like Cass Neary. She’s the kind of person I’m at pains to avoid in real life. But in Hand’s telling, her story is engrossing and even compelling. Generation Loss is a tough book. It’s hard and clear and the ending that gave me such pause is, in the final analysis, too much like real life to make me comfortable. If this book isn’t brilliant, it’s the next best thing.
(Small Beer Press, 2007)