Generation Loss is the story of Cass Neary, a photographer who, as the novel opens, has seen her epoch pass her by. If she belonged anywhere, it was in the punk scene of seventies New York, where she had a brief flash of fame taking grainy black-and-white photos of addicts, parties, budding musicians, and, unnervingly, dead bodies. For a brief moment, the culture was in tune with her, and she was functional enough to seize her chance:
I loved being alone in the dark with the red safelight, that incandescent flare when I switched the lights back on and there it was: a black-and-white print: a body, an eye, a tongue, a cunt, a prick, a hand, a tree; drunk kids racing through a side street with their eyes white like they’d seen a ghost with a gun.
This is what I lived for, me alone with these things. Not just knowing I’d seen them and taken the picture but feeling like I’d made them, like they’d never have existed without me… You read a lot of crap about photographic craftsmanship in those days, and technique; but you didn’t hear shit about vision. I knew that I had an eye, a gift for seeing where the ripped edges of the world begin to peel away and something else shows through. What that whole downtown scene was about, at least for a little while, was people grabbing at that frayed seam and just yanking to see what was behind it; to see what was left when everything else was torn away.
But, as Cass herself admits, she fucked it all up, and her moment passed. Now it’s 2007, and she’s a burnout, holding down a stockroom job at The Strand mostly so she can steal the occasional photography book. She takes almost every drug that comes along, nursing not so much a specific addiction as the general need to make her own consciousness bearable. She’s angry, brittle, unpleasant, and careless in a way that female characters are seldom permitted to be, even in a publishing climate striving to cash in on the antiheroine. She’s older, at least in her fifties; she fucks (men and women both), but her sexuality isn’t designed to be alluring. She’s punk and urban, not suburban and domestic, and she has no superficially normal surface to hide the dark clockwork beneath. In fact, to the best of her abilities, she’s even a reliable narrator, unhesitatingly telling us not only what she understands about her motivations (including her slightly overheated, overplayed back-story and a slightly overplayed, quasi-supernatural “gift”) and unsparingly presenting her faults.
Which are severe and destructive. She struck a previous girlfriend and abandoned a previous boyfriend. She steals constantly, impulsively, and often without any real reason. She doesn’t run from the horrors she encounters, but she doesn’t always precisely intervene in them, either:
I looked down again. One of [her] eyes was fixed on me. A pinkish glaze sheathed the cornea, like a welling tear. As I stared, the eyelid dropped in a wink then slowly rose, the tear darkening to scarlet as it spilled onto her cheek. A red bubble appeared in one nostril and popped. Tiny red specks appeared across her cheeks, a flush.
She was still alive. I took a step toward the door.
And stopped. I turned back, got onto one knee, popped the lens cap from my Konica, and began to shoot.
…I got a series of close-ups. At one point I worried that her breath might fog my lens. But by then she hardly seemed to be breathing at all.
Generation Loss is followed (currently) by two sequels, Available Dark and Hard Light, and it will not surprise you that both novels begin with Cass trying to escape the consequences of what has happened in the previous book; as the series goes on, her options are narrowing even as her hold on life is growing stronger. These are dark books, but Cass feeds off that darkness. She finds beauty in it, and Hand’s skill at conveying that is one of the great pleasures of Generation Loss and its sequels, all of which are rich with the details–artistic, chemical, historical–of photography and music. Cass may have a lot of flaws, but she’s far from ignorant and, at least when it comes to art, far from apathetic.
That informed passion is what effectively kicks off Generation Loss, as Cass is somewhat dubiously hired to interview reclusive photographer Aphrodite Kamestos, one of her own influences, who used color in revolutionary and still mysterious ways and also kickstarted some of Cass’s own more morbid work by doing a series that concentrated on long-distance shots of vistas where horrible things had happened. Cass arrives at Aphrodite’s home on an out-of-the-way island off the coast of Maine only to find that Aphrodite wasn’t expecting her and isn’t interested in talking to her or anyone else, leaving Cass at loose ends to explore the island, including its current rash of missing teenagers and its long and bleak history of failed communes, failed marriages, and wasted lives.
Cass is located in a very specific time and artistic moment, and she’s been influenced by a set of artists–both her peers and her contemporaries–and Hand takes all that seriously, making Generation Loss a novel of intensely felt intellectual and artistic passion, not subjects generally given to female characters. Womanhood is not something Hand overlooks, but it feels mostly beside the point of Cass, not as pivotal to her sense of self as her age or career; it’s rare to see gender as a secondary or even tertiary characteristic for a female character. I think this is partly because the novel is less a mystery, engaged with the doings of this world, and more a Mystery, something that grapples with a sense of something dangerous and sublime just beyond our usual field of vision. Cass looks for, and finds, the frayed seam of reality, and under her gaze, it only barely holds together–and seems to fray further with each book. Later novels will fuck more actively with concepts of gender, both subtly and more significantly, but that’s a process that’s just beginning in Generation Loss. Here, it’s just one more Mystery, and not the most pressing one.