How Cass Neary, the protagonist of Elizabeth Hand’s latest novel Generation Loss, has stayed alive this long is anyone’s guess. Super-young, super-talented and super-stoned at the birth of punk below 14th Street in the 1970s, Cass started taking photographs of her friends and ended up publishing a briefly sensational book called Dead Girls. Now it’s 30 years later and Cass has never managed to make more of her life than a shambles.
Now she’s been summoned to a remote island off the coast of Maine to interview an aging recluse named Aphrodite Kamestos, a photographer whose enigmatic work inspired Cass when she was young and passionate. Trouble is, Aphrodite didn’t have any idea Cass was coming - and when a young girl who spoke briefly to Cass disappears, she finds herself unable to leave an island that’s becoming very unfriendly. Fueled by Jack Daniels and whatever prescription drugs she can pocket, Cass tries to find the girl and answer a very real question: why am I here?
Part crime thriller, part existential exploration, and all punk rock attitude, Generation Loss manages to make an extremely porcupiny main character compelling and even sympathetic. Hand’s real accomplishment, however, is in her descriptions of the very different types of photographic work that play a part in the story. From Cass’s Cindy Sherman-esque self-portraits to Aphrodite’s audacious experiments with color, the images come to life and dance before the eyes. Generation Loss, for all its words, is practically a picture book.
Generation Loss occupies the same hipster territory as Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, but Hand has aspirations of genre as well, bringing in forensics and unsolved mysteries that make this book feel more than just literary. Hand’s authentic evocations of the birth and quick death of punk make for a hardcore rock ‘n’ roll ending, and the rest of the book maintains the same energy that the author experienced firsthand.