The Art of Losing

Reviewed by Lorraine York

These three books span generic categories, from Heather Birrell’s short stories, to Anakana Schofield’s novel, to Lynn Crosbie’s ficto-memoir. But what they all meditate upon, in some fashion or other, is, in Crosbie’s words, the art of “losing everything.” And they are all, willingly or not, inheritors of that paean to loss: Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, not only in the thematic sense, but in the ways in which they—to differing degrees—play fast and loose with more recognizable, canonized literary treatments of loss.

This is least the case with Birrell’s eleven stories in Mad Hope. Technically speaking, these are tightly focused miniatures: taut, controlled, economical. They almost all revolve around a traumatic incident of some kind: a neighbourhood child murdered, a student pleading with her teacher to help her arrange an abortion, the murder of a gay teenager. As studies of human relationships under duress, they present themselves with a remarkable clarity. We see these characters living beyond the ending, as it were: carrying trauma into the everyday, or at least wondering how to do so, or struggling not to. The obvious drawback to this fictional structure is that the traumatic incident itself comes to seem a predictable given. But when looked at as experimentation, as a multi-faceted study of human beings in radically wrenched, bizarrely altered situations, these stories begin to look more edgy than their initial, miniature gem-like quality would suggest. At times, the writing, like the traumatic central incidents, loses surprise: “What Jerome said delighted Geraldine absolutely—its insouciance and lack of logic.” So far so very, very good. But Birrell takes us too far into explication: “Every now and then, she thought, you bumped into somebody who showed you a different way of living, a fierce commitment to a life that you could never claim as your own. What would the future hold for them both? There was no way of knowing.” True enough. But in this story of a middle-aged white woman’s meeting with a black teenager in a cancer clinic, the “different way of living,” the “fierce commitment” are gradually revealed through the nicely observed contrasts of generational speech, among other devices, and so they do not arguably need to be so fully rehearsed here. But elsewhere in the stories, this kind of exposition sparkles; in “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams,” an increasingly drunken Samantha thinks of the young man she meets at a wedding who works in marketing: “Samantha knows next to nothing about marketing and considers this a fault. Enough people seem to do it, all day, for days on end; there must be something molten and mesmeric at its core.” The geologic metaphors surprise and amuse: Mad Men meets The Nature of Things.

In Anakana Schofield’s novel Malarky, by contrast, dark trauma and domestic drudgery become barely extricable. Set in Ireland, and experimental in its shifting perspectives, Malarky follows the depressive down-spiralling of the never-named Our Woman: a working-class woman whose life is derailed by her husband’s apparent infidelity (as bizarrely confessed by a woman she dubs Red the Twit, who confronts Our Woman in a teashop), her husband’s death, her discovery of her son’s gayness, and her son’s death in Afghanistan. Anger and denial vie for dominance in her responses, though these seismic shifts in her domestic world have the effect of also unleashing her own sexuality. Our Woman proceeds, as does Schofield, experimentally, transgressing the very mores that she has seemed to uphold, by initiating erotic play with a Syrian immigrant who works as a security guard in an Irish department store: someone whose hold on cultural legitimacy is shakier by far than hers. He obsessively traverses her body in search of the maternal, as though in search of that denied national legitimacy, whereas she uses his body to explore the nature of her son’s gay sex. Schofield is also sure in her intertwining of the psychological and the political; it is not surprising that Our Woman’s son, spurned by his parents but especially his father, who rejects him and cuts off his college funds, is left to perform masculinity in a self-destructive rather than erotically creative way: he enlists, is sent to war, and dies. As Our Woman descends further into grief, Schofield’s experimentally fragmented style intensifies, and we are left with an indictment of a domestic ordinariness that is cruelly punishing of transgression, whether sexual, cultural, class, or psychic. “I had a husband and a son and they were both taken from me suddenly,” reflects Our Woman, “and what have I learned from this? I have learned no answers. I’ve learned to act rather than wonder. I’ve learnt only how to misbehave.” But what is also impressive about Schofield’s achievement is the persistence of her wicked humour amid the depths of grief. When her husband, aghast at her apparent psychological wanderings, takes her to the hospital, Our Woman’s voice provides a mordantly funny gloss on his concerns: “There! Whamble! He has it! A Syrian has done this to her. . . .Them foreigners if we let them near our old ladies, sure the wards start filling up is what my husband is trying to tell them.” And when he stupidly informs the hospital staff that he has only noticed of late that his wife has stopped eating eggs, and that she has seemed concerned about buying a horse, she rejoices, “An egg! An egg! Surely to God an egg would fix the woman! An egg would heal this mad equine concerned woman!” Malarky, a recent and notable addition to the growing field of mad studies—the exploration of oppressive practices directed against those deemed “mad”—explores the uses of humour to unveil and counteract that oppression.

If one is comparing these three books and the challenges of treating grief and extreme loss in fictional form, Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything forms an apogee of sorts, an extended keening and outraged howl set up against all that falls away: youth, lovers, friendships, trust, vitality. Like Schofield, Crosbie works with the fragmentary and the episodic; this ficto-memoir is divided into short, stabbing sections of prose, many of which painfully capture a betrayal, a loss, an indignity. And whereas this repetition could have the effect of desensitization or routinization (a risk that Birrell runs at moments), it oddly concentrates this volume into a fictional version of a choral dirge. Beloved people and animals pass in and out of Crosbie’s ficto-memoir: a frieze of loss. But as with Schofield’s Malarky, to sum up Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything as a portrait of an unrelieved psychic inferno would be to overlook its devastatingly dark comedy. Readers with some familiarity of the Canadian literary world will derive some caustic pleasure at the moments of sardonic roman-a-clef play. In “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Lynn” describes a literary agent’s comments scrawled on her manuscripts: “My, aren’t we moody? or Well! This will never play with the book ladies.” “Lynn,” thinking about pleasing these particular consumers, pictures arriving at an airport on her way to a literary festival, being picked up by a woman who asks, “hopefully if I was, possibly, Aritha van Herk?” only to lapse into “a morose silence” when Crosbie reveals her identity.

In one of Crosbie’s many laments for a lost friend, “Blue Thunder,” she hears the news of his death “as if hearing blue thunder in a dark sky, warning me of other jolts of lightning to come.” The description, with its lovely and terrifying synaesthesia, captures the fragmentary, stormy method of Life Is About Losing Everything. It also brings to mind the grim comedy of Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliant study of loss, the villanelle “One Art.” (And here it seems fitting that Crosbie published Villain Elle, a collection of poems, in 1994.) Though Bishop’s speaker initially dismisses her grief, lightly joking that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” her closing stanza drops us, with her, over the edge into naked loss:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like

Write it!” Bishop’s inner poet insists, pushing us through the domestic comedy of missing objects, to face unflinchingly the greater loss that domestic comedy discloses. Birrell, Schofield, Crosbie, and the beautiful losers who populate their books look unflinchingly into the face of domestic comedy; they “(Write it!) like disaster.”

This review “The Art of Losing” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 140-42.

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