People think they want the truth. But the truth is that people want to be reassured that it’s only there that the horror lies, there on the other side of the television screen, the computer screen, the world. No one wants to look on the charred remains of a human corpse lying at their feet. No one wants to look on unalloyed grief and horror and loss. I don’t always want to myself, but I won’t deny that I do, and I won’t deny that my photos show you what’s really there. I can’t look away.
I have heard a lot of good things about Elizabeth Hand, but as of yet had not had the pleasure of reading any of her work, so I asked my good friend Larry where to start and he suggested Generation Lost. The protagonist, Cassandra Neary was once a photographer of minor fame in the New York punk scene before counterculture gave way to commerciality. Now in her forties, alone and working in the storeroom of the Strand, she is offered a gig from an old friend in the art world interviewing her biggest influence, Aphrodite Kamestos, a reclusive and paranoid photographer living on a island in Maine. When she arrives in Maine, she finds out that things aren’t exactly like she was lead to believe and that there is something sinister about the high rate of child disappearances in the area spanning back over the past few decades.
The real strength in the novel lies in Hand’s superb characterization, particularly on the part of Cass. Despite the fact that she is an alcoholic and often comes off as uncaring and cold, and at times almost callous, the reader still comes to care about her even though she is unlikable by normal standards. She is damaged almost irreparably by her past, which leads to her make bad choices and, by her own admission, she always seems to willingly embrace annihilation. The thing that haunts her the most is a brutal rape in which she was made to feel helpless as she did not fight back and this drives her fury towards existence in general. The incident on the island offers Cass’ a sense of salvation in being able to fight this time, as she is able in some way to finally overcome that part of her past.
The way in which Hand uses the setting to create mood is also spectacular as everything around Cass mirrors the desolation that she feels. The freezing cold, the dark water, dead trees and jagged rocks all evoke a sense of isolation and hopelessness that creates a sense of fatalism shared by the protagonist. This can also be seen in the inhabitants of the island and that rundown buildings patched together from whatever was available, giving the novel an overwhelming feeling that there is no future. Beyond this however, there is also a very personal sort of redemption for Cass, even in such a bleak environment; hope for those willing to fight even in seemingly hopeless situations.
While technically a psychological thriller, Generation Loss to me seems more like a character study, as Hand has something to say about the human condition that resonates with the reader. While the mystery of the person behind the disappearances is quite predictable, what is more interesting is the motive behind the person’s actions and in relation the nature of art. Art remains a constant theme throughout the novel, how it defines the artistic characters and how far they are willing to go in order to create their vision. In order to explain this, Hand evokes a number of artists from symbolists like Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch to more contemporary photographers. My only minor gripe was the climax, as the use of a literal Chekhov’s gun telegraphed it a little too much for my liking, and I felt that in the boat chase the thriller elements threatened to overwhelm the subtleness of the novel thus far. That aside, it remains a wonderful novel that reminded me in some ways of Kiernan’s The Red Tree; intelligent, moving and highly authentic. I’ll certainly be reading more of Hand’s work in the near future.
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