I first encountered Elizabeth Hand via her debut novel, Winterlong. I thought it was great, if a bit opaque, and I liked her subsequent books, Æstival Tide and Icarus Descending, almost as much. Slightly earlier, I had also discovered similar writer Richard Grant, and was surprised to find they were a couple. I liked them both, but in my mind, both went wrong when they started writing less SFF and more contemporary, real world fantasy. In Hand’s case, with Glimmering.
In Generation Loss, Cass Neary, a small-town girl turned big-city punk photographer has spent twenty years doing drugs, having sex, and having once been slightly famous. She heads to Maine to interview a more famous has-been photographer, and things go bad.
Cass is an amoral, unlikeable character. That can work fine, especially in third person. Hand, though, uses a first person perspective, and she doesn’t pull it off. Cass goes around doing amoral things, but there’s never any reflection or introspection that explains why. She clearly recognizes that, for example, stealing and hiding someone’s car keys is not a good thing to do, but she does it anyway. Aside from plot convenience, we never learn why she does it or how she feels about it. It’s just one of those things – she’s outwardly a bad person. Again, that might work, except that we’re seeing the action from her point of view, and she appears to have no opinion about it.
Hand seems to go out of her way to concoct a stereotype – gritty, dark, and pretentious all at once. Must the music be Patti Smith and John Coltrane? Despite her limited life of drugs and sex, Cass seems to have managed to learn a lot about not only photography, but furniture and wine. She walks into one room in a decrepit house on a Maine island, and we learn that it’s full of “Twentieth Century Danish Modern furniture. Arne Jacobsen chairs, a cane and bamboo Jacobsen Slug chair, a beautifully spare Klint dining table.” To be honest, I don’t know or care what any of this is. But I find it hard to accept that a ne’er do well who’s spent her life in crappy apartments can pick all this out at a glance. Hand seems to feel the need to drop names – especially in photography. This is more excusable, since the protagonist is a photographer. But in the space of four paragraphs, she mentions: Warhol, Schnabel, Koons, Curtins; Chris Mars, Joe Coleman; Lori Field, Nick Blinko; Fred Ressler, Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Lee Friedlander, Brian Belott, Branka Jukic. I don’t know who most of these people are. I’m sure it’s fun for photography and modern art aficionados, but to an average reader, it’s overkill. I got the point way back – Cass knows photography.
Despite all this, and a plot that seems to cry out “Make me into a horror film, please!”, there’s no denying Hand’s stylistic skill. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Generation Loss is well written. It was more than enough to get me to finish the book with some enjoyment. It’s not enough to get me interested in the sequel, out next year. In fact, much as I admire her writing, and much as I approve of doing new things, I’m not sure I’m in Hand’s audience any more.
In brief – if you’re looking for a return to Hand’s early work, look elsewhere. If you want gritty, dark, well written horror, this is the book for you, especially if you’re excited about photography.