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Does Ms. Hand have it yet? I don't quite think so, but man, is she close. So close, in fact, that, after reading this work, I'm wondering if she might reconsider getting it at all. It's scary. I mean, Damnation scary.
Got what? Lose what?
It's gazing on the face of the Medusa and walking away. It's handing John Kennedy Toole a retainer check instead of a garden hose full of deadly car exhaust fumes. It's about being able to smell, taste, feel the everwhelming Borgia dinner of death, and taking an opener to that proverbial can of worms for a gourmet meal instead of another mess in the colostomy bag. It is the discarnate triumph of Faust over Mephisto's garnishes of delusions and tragedies.
The voice of Generation Loss is Cassandra Neary and she is all about loss. While a young child, her mother dies in an auto wreck. Her only remembrance lies in the remaining B&W photos Cass traces with her fingers, “pretending the dust was face powder on my mother's cheeks” (Small Beer Press, ISBN 9781931520218, c.2007, p.2). Her two most fixative and defining moments—well, three if you count the once live-in lover who perishes under 911 rubble—are being raped without going down kicking and screaming, and photographing dead junkies, Punk Era miscreants and musicians culminating in 15 minutes of media fame and Dead Girls, a photo book destined for utility wire, wooden spool coffee tables everywhere. Her vision superglues onto “damage; it radiates from some people like a pheromone. Those are the ones I photograph” (p.6). Her own damage is safely tucked away behind bad manners, petty meanness, disregard for property or morals, and offensive, shock-crock posturing. “I liked to think of my talent as something I'd honed to a point, a spike I could drive right into the eye of the viewer” (p.16), says Cass, although underneath the tattoos, steel-toed cowboy boots, black leather and mascara, she is the artistic quester, using the corporeal detritus like a switchblade to peel back the skin of the world while doggedly searching for its true, ethereal heart.
Now, kissing fifty, she's viewed as another fried doucher working the stock room at a bookstore, carrying around her yester-tech Konica camera while slugging down pharmacy narcotics with a pint of Black Jack a day, trying to get laid by either sex, and still lamenting the Sid Vicious days and its inevitable loss. Thrown a mercy gig, Cass rolls off to Maine to interview legendary photographer Aphrodite Kamestos, a recluse who'd built up a body of emulsified dreamscapes in the ‘50s around places “where terrible things had happened”, creating a “sense of transgression [that] was visceral because it was so detached” (p.29). But Aphrodite proves to be chewed through with psychosis, leaving her about as communicative as her pet deerhounds and overpowered with unsubstantial hatreds, paranoid delusions, and inundatory fears. She's the flotsam of her past creations washed out of the long-gone commune Oakwind that built upon hers and similar talents over Paswegas Island decades ago. Cass ends up drawn and quartered between the suspicions and hostilities of Aphrodite, her grudgingly-likeable but buttoned-up son Gryffin, the witch-hunting locals rattling their pitchforks over all the missing teenagers, and Denny Ahearn, the thanatographer, the only still-working artist of the novel who “went the rest of the way, to a place you didn't want to go. And once he got there, he jumped” (p.228). He's the one “so beyond damage it was like a new color, something so dark and terrible it left no room for sight or sound or taste” (p.226).
This time Ms. Hand has chosen the underpinnings of the crime or hard-boiled detective genre to suture up her thematic concerns. The only unsightly bulge is a thriller-style climax that gets too carried away with its pyrotechnics and shadows over the human butchery and mental horror that's preceded it. The novel wraps in the happy, sappy clichés of loose ends being tied up, then hints at extended residency for Cass in “one of those places where people weren't meant to live”, yet, she realizes, “I could live here. It wasn't exactly a comforting thought” (p.164-5).
Earlier, Denny says to her, “you and me, we carry the dead on our backs. We write on the dead” (p.227). Cass agrees and even acknowledges future responsibility (p.253). After all, her vision depends on the abreaction from photographing would-be corpses. As a teenager, she thinks she sees a “vast striated eye” (p.2) whorled like a hurricane in the sky above her. Then, three years later, this experience is repeated in a dream, adding a Denny Ahearn-like figure touching her forehead. This, of course, is the traditional location for a person's spiritual, or third eye, which makes next day's giving of a camera to her pure predestination. Moreover, eyes are constantly performing double duty throughout Generation Loss as indicators of mental fancies. Denny's eye has a green flaw in the iris. So does Gryffin, the guy she's likely to take up with at novel's end. Hopefully, Cassandra has no stock in the fate of her Greek mythological namesake.
Because Cass—and here's that queasy feeling of unrest you should get finishing this novel—is about a half a step and a fried synapse away from taking up Denny's fated inquisition.
Oh, she'll do it differently, but the challenge is irresistible. In one sense, it is out of her control; Cass thinks she is in the wielding hands of destiny. But, unlike Denny, she will not be content as some Reaperesque delivery boy to the gods. If Denny was the Hierophant of the Tarot deck, she'll be its High Priestess.
Flushed with success but still arrogant and stubbornly self-deluded, Cass will never return to a life with a “big fucking hole in it” (p.1). She's already banged off a roll of Tri-X in the “dying light” of the woods, just “to see if my eye, injured or not, had changed” (p.261). She intuits being watched, as in Denny's ICU acronyms or his ceiling full of CDs mirroring down like multi-faceted eyes, but by an even more omninous presence locals call a “fisher”. Although no one believes they exist on the island, Cass's been spooked by it before. It acts suspiciously like a familiar.
The artistic consciousness naturally seeks the ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Ultimate Knowledge. Otherwise, why trade off stability, tranquility, and repose for long hours, suffering and poverty from an unrewarding and unappreciative society? Cassandra craves the Devil's wager. She's vain enough to believe she can win.
But she won't kill anyone. She wouldn't do that.No real Dead Girls this time, right?