How many mysteries and thrillers open with the central problem of the story? A dead body found in unusual circumstances? A damsel in distress consulting a PI because the police won’t help her with her special problem? A dreadfully evil deed requiring retribution? Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss (2007) ignores this convention. Telling a hardline, personal story of a woman kicked to the curb of life (by herself and others), tension and suspense unfurl organically around her until she not only needs an explanation for the circumstances of her life, but immediate protection from the situation arisen around her. That may be the definition of real suspense.
Cass Neary is a washed up photographer working the stock room of The Strand in NYC when Generation Loss opens. Her first photography project “Dead Girls” a one-off, she’s been fighting drug abuse and bad relationships ever since, and always coming up on the losing end. When a friend contacts her to ask if she’s willing to travel to a remote Maine island to interview a once-famous photographer named Aphrodite, she jumps at the chance. The opposite of NYC, the small town life Cass discovers is more bizarre than she ever could have imagined. Strange personalities, missing persons, and an old hippy commune now in tatters exacerbate her finding that Aphrodite a half-crazed bitch that doesn’t remember asking to be interviewed. One drunken night Cass’ reality takes a hard spin, and she begins to discover just how truly bizarre life on the island is.
From NYC to the punk scene, techniques of photography to humanists like Mircea Eliade, Hand uses her breadth of knowledge to fill the background details of Cass’ strange experience. A drug addict, kleptomaniac, and depressed woman who acts, thinks, and decides according to rhythms and currents even she doesn’t understand, that she’s still alive is amazing. But that she finds herself caught in the proverbial basement of life on a strange island is even more amazing, and Hand’s precise, detailed imagination brings every aspect of just how strange it all is.
As with every Elizabeth Hand story, much of the content of Generation Loss seems autobiographical. Cassy’s viewpoint so informed, so real, it seems impossible to separate the things Hand lived from those she witnessed growing up herself in the punk scene of NYC or just imagined for the novel. All lending a strong hand of verisimilitude, where many thrillers exist with more than one toe hanging over the line of realism into fantasy in order to capture the reader and give them escape, Hand’s story has all its toes in reality; Cass’ personal issues never lose grip and the ultimate motivation for the plot is even rooted in a believable explanation that recurses through the plot to make it a solid whole.
In the end, Generation Loss is a spectacular example how to write a thriller. Perfectly balanced across plot, character, and setting, it wholly succeeds despite the fact the central plot motivator reveals itself more like a rising sun than a gunshot. The narrative gently pushing the reader forward until they are entirely ensconced in the strange tale of Cass, the novel rarely if ever bows to stereotype, everything about the story unique, right down to the real details of life in Maine and singularity of the characters. The title referring to the clarity of image, sharpness of feature, and overall loss of fidelity in photos and other images as they are copied through the years, nothing, however, is lost on Hand as she continues to produce one quality novel after another.