March 2007

Melissa Albert

fiction

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

“I looked like what your mother dreams about in the middle of the night when you don’t come home.” Those are the words of Cass “Scary” Neary, photographer and punk superstar, aged 19. It’s the late ’70s in New York and Cass is a crude but bizarrely sensitive girl: she can feel the visceral punch of another person’s “damage” by looking at their face, a force she harnesses in capturing images of the lust and ferocity of the exploding punk scene. A dying animal from the start, punk fizzles out and New Wave begins, leaving Cass and her art all washed up. The death of the movement coincides closely with her rape, a 4 a.m. nightmare on the pavement outside of CBGB’s. This life, birth to premature burnout, is encapsulated in a handful of pages at the start of Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss. Childhood, fame, rape, and fallout are dispatched in taut sentences that twitch with blood and fear -- and with some overripe nostalgia for the era’s raw decadence.

When the smoke clears, Cass is marooned in a lifestyle that’s been choked out by gentrification and her own aging. Her photo career cut short, she ends up an ambitionless stock clerk in the Strand bookstore, still drinking, pill-popping, and going home with strangers. In her late 40s, she lives in the kind of squalor that’s only romantic when you’re too young to drink.

Then an old “friend,” a double-talker who refers to her as “Cassandra Android,” offers her a way to make a quick pile of cash: Mojo magazine, he alleges, wants to send her to Maine to interview reclusive has-been photographer Aphrodite Kamestos. Aphrodite lives on an island off the state’s brutal northern coast, in a dilapidated house surrounded by the scattered ruins of the artist’s colony she founded years earlier.

Once Cass leaves her dim New York life, Hand hits her stride. The austere Maine landscapes are more alive and feral than are the overplayed visions of the punk rock scene, and the insular secrecy of small-town life is scarier than dead junkies and broken-bottle fights.

On arriving, Cass learns that no one is expecting her, Aphrodite is a half-mad lush, and her fashion boots and $500 jeans are no match for Maine. And there’s something strange about the tiny town and its adjacent island. People frequently go missing, and most of the residents are content to blame hidden pregnancies or boredom for the epidemic of the lost. Also bizarre are the small, totemic pieces of art and exquisitely manipulated photographs Cass finds scattered throughout town, all the work of the island’s resident “harmless” nut, Denny. An ex-lover of Aphrodite and onetime commune denizen, he makes artwork that exudes the particular brand of damage that Cass is so painfully attuned to.

Then another girl goes missing, the daughter of the owner of Cass’s motel. Cass had been one of the last to see her, and the search party that forms seems liable to boil up into a lynch mob. Far from being a whodunit, as that is clear from the start, the tension here derives from Cass’s imprisonment on the bleak island, as the weather and the mood of the townspeople darken.

Hand has set Cass up to be an anti-hero, dehumanized after her rape by an assailant she failed to fight off; the chance to become a real hero is a possibility of quick redemption. But while Cass is an interesting character, with her unflinching ability to find beauty in sickness, her psychological wounds never ring true, and the kindness that occasionally blinks through her is even less rewarding than her mostly unmitigated bitchiness. Whether she loses or finds her soul in Maine is not as burning a question as may have been intended.

But a rich mythology is built around Aphrodite’s commune and the supernatural cruelty of northern Maine, and the story is peppered with fascinating, well-researched passages on photographic technique. It’s difficult to convince readers to care about a misanthrope, and while that end is not achieved here, the tiny coastal town and its shaded past breathe with true life. Hand peels back the corners of the town’s secrets, always hinting at a richer whole beneath the ice and fog.

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 1931520216
265 pages