Camera Obscura

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted February 14, 2008 in Arts & Culture

Wonderful small press books often slip by us. Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss published last April by Small Beer Press in Massachusetts was almost one, until we stumbled on a copy in our local library. The book’s introductory quotes intrigued us; Roland Barthes’ connection of photography to madness, Patti Smith’s notion—taken from her poem “sister morphine”—that art needs a lack of light. The statements gathered more meaning as we read on in this horrifically hip mystery that’s as strange and addictive as your last hit of freebase. Hand mixes generations of culture—hippie, punk and goth—in a vision of artistic derangement and self-absorption. By its end both madness and darkness are illuminated brilliantly.

Cass Neary grows up in the Hudson Valley and is “a wild thing as privileged children of that town were.” She sees things that no one sees and hears a voice whispering her name as she lies in bed. On her seventeenth birthday, she’s given a camera. “I saw my face distorted in the round glass of the lens, like a flaw; like an eye staring back at me.” This distortion defines her life. She begins following the punk scene of the mid-1970s in New York, shooting Larry Clark-like photos of her junkie boyfriend and the people who hang out at Max’s Kansas City, the home of the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and the New York Dolls among others.

One day, camera in hand, she finds a kid dead of an OD in an alley. “I liked things that didn’t move,” she tells us, “dead trees, stones. I liked dead things: the fingerless soft hand of a pheasant’s wing, mouse skulls disinterred from an owl pellet . . . I liked portraits of my friends when they were sleeping.” These attractions begin to define her life as well as her work. A 16-year-old heroin freak she picks up at a club calls her crazy. “You’re in love with annihilation,” he tells her. She doesn’t think it’s such a bad thing.

By the time she’s 21, Cass has published a collection of her strange and morbid work entitled Dead Girls and becomes a celebrity. As punk is commercialized and implodes, so does Cass. Leaving CBGB’s at 4AM one morning, she hears that voice calling her name and approaches the car which it comes from. She’s raped at knifepoint. All she remembers of the experience is that she didn’t fight.

Art aside, she struggles on, working a menial job at the Strand Bookstore, consuming all the drugs and drink she can. Then, one day she’s given an assignment from a friend: to go to a small island off the coast of Maine and photograph Aphrodite Kamestos, an early inspiration of Cass’ who shot haunting, grainy photos of seacoast landscapes. The rural backwater Cass travels to is a place where people go missing, hunters and their kill are listed on a local bulletin board and the occasional body washes up from the sea. Cass befriends a young girl who despite the unlikely setting is into goth. There’s a strange mix of locals and once-upon-a-time communal hippies who orbit Kamestos, now a drunk and aged has-been. Of course, Kamestos has no inkling of Cass’ coming.

What follows is a piling of strangeness and discovery, all of it circling around art as a way of looking at the world. Cass’ early vision comes alive on the island as she ponders strange smelling but darkly intriguing collages. Then there’s Kamestos’ haunting early work, and anonymous totems of turtle shells and dog bones. She begins to see the art’s depravity and how she shares it.

The story deflates once Cass reaches the island. Hand’s characters often don’t know what to do with themselves, fidgeting in place and the story line is encumbered with stares and foot dragging. But soon the plot accelerates and the aimlessness disappears. As the story reaches its climax, art doesn’t so much imitate life as it does death.

It’s hard not to like Cass as she steals Adderall from her host’s medicine cabinet and stumbles around with pints of Jack Daniels buried in her coat pockets. But her silence in the face of death gives pause. Given another chance to fight back, she does. And while she may be seen by her fellow characters as a hero at book’s close, it’s hard for readers to see her that way.

The happy ending here is that Hand’s novel won’t go the way of many small press publications. Harvest Books plans to release Generation Loss in the spring and the distribution of a major publisher should find it a wide audience. But don’t wait until then.

This is a small press book with best-seller impact.

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand: Small Beer Press, hardback, 265 pages, $24


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