Life Is About Losing Everything
House of Anansi, 2012
Paperback, 348 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
One day, long ago, and as a result of some long-forgotten plumbing catastrophe, I found myself, in the fading light of a dismal, sleeting afternoon in late November, the sole occupant of a laundromat. Laundromats (and coachbus stations) even on brightly sunlit days emit an oppressive emotional tone for me — a melancholy mix of transience and dampness. On this particular day, waiting out the cycle, and quite unaware of my danger, I was keeping the funk at bay by reading John Updike’s Rabbit, Run — not, as it turns out, the best weapon against ennui. There is, in the story, if memory serves, a scene in which Rabbit, a former high school basketball star, now in his early twenties and contemplating his future as suburban family man and kitchen gadget salesman, is suddenly overwhelmed by the implacable banality of the life ahead of him. It’s an epiphany of despair for him, and, as it must explain his decision to run, Updike lavishes his very considerable talent on its evocation of bleakness. To the mournful thumping of an off-kilter spin cycle, overlaid by the thrum of sleet on metal roof, in the raw, damp gloom of the dying day, surrounded by malign connotation and immersed in Rabbit’s wretchedness, I had a small, shiverous epiphany of my own — and I came to understand that it is possible to overdose on ennui. Like Rabbit, I bolted. Several fudgesicles, a healthy dose of “happy music,” and a rousing round of “Where’s the kitty?” with the always effervescent Miss Phoebe (the cat, I hasten to add) were required to restore emotional equanimity.
Making my way through the opening chapters of Lynn Crosbie’s latest book, Life Is About Losing Everything, I am reminded of this incident and begin to tread with care. As the author explains, the work “follows a period of trauma, excess, then morbid solitude,” and is both a chronicle of, and part of the process by which she found her way back to life. The story is told through a series of short (some are only a page or two) interconnected, but not chronological, occasionally fantastical, meditations and memories, strung together like beads in a necklace. We first meet Lynn in the throes of what seems to be a magnificently lurid midlife crisis:
I have entered middle age.
I am overweight, and I live with a little dog and two cats. I have been alone for more than seven years.
I have let myself go.
Beginning with the perkily titled chapter, “The Wretched Life of a Lonely Heart,” we learn, further, through a few well-chosen images of steak fat and yellow custard, that her body image is toxic and that she is a college instructor whose students rate her as “approximately average or lower.” She explains that what follows was written after the death of a high school love, who “died of a heart attack” and that “he died alone.” What follows is, at the outset, a nearly unrelenting sluice of despair, and squalid wallow –
As for me, I am huge and indolent
I was almost beautiful once, and am the trash of that now.
At meetings, I draw myself trudging in the snow, holding heavy bags.
Most nights, [in dreams] the dead appear and disgust me with their ardour. Alternately, I throw up filth, and start cleaning, ineffectually, with a sponge.
By the time, not far in, I get to the friend with the pet squirrel named “Blackness,” I am, once again, ready to bolt.
There are other small sources of concern. Hints, for example, of the “addict memoir” — a subgenre of my own devising which features a compulsion to name the addictive substance, repeatedly and lovingly, and for the narrative to degenerate from time to time into pharmacological incantations of abstruse complexity. Somewhat reminiscent of endless post-romance analysis sessions with girlfriends, the past love object remains the obsessive centre of interest for the teller, but a source of tedium for the listener. To her credit, Crosbie only flirts with this compulsion — many of the anecdotes accompanied by an inventory of the chemicals in play.
Another irritant is the tendency to recount, in the most matter-of-fact manner, grievous errors in judgement in matters of drug abuse, and male companions, and great depths of self-loathing despair, without, necessarily, seeming to connect the two. Here, Crosbie is more guilty, offering passages such as:
I helped him [boyfriend] wedge his new shirts and slacks into the suitcase’s plastic-bagged hanger compartment; filled a bag with fruit and diagonal-cut sandwiches, a selection of sleeping pills.
I got no love, Christopher says. He is my [different] boyfriend and crack dealer. He is beautiful in a saintly way, a saint fasting on Freezies and having knife fights.
I take a glass of bourbon and a tray of cookies with me and sit in front of the TV. And by a tray of cookies I mean a foil-wrapped square of cardboard covered with plump, immaculate OxyContins.
without further explication.
“Lynn,” one wants to shout, “you have too many elephants in your rooms.”
And yet…the earlier necklace analogy is not inappropriate, for each vignette is gem-like. The beauty, precision and polish of the writing cannot be ignored — the darkly lustrous wit and the minimalist confidence in the power of image, worthy of admiration, despite an almost unrelenting fascination with squalor, decay and ugliness. Although I do insist that the collection of quotes above provides a sense of the tone of much of the book, they are, of course, taken out of context and strung rudely together. In situ, they are no less dolorous, but more beautifully displayed. Within the same span of writing can be found an equal list of heart-rending and/or exquisitely funny lines such as:
If I were being sold on The Shopping Channel as a piece of Joan River’s jewellery, I would be described as a “chunky, hammered comfort bracelet” or “faux-python teardrop necklace.”
Loneliness has attached itself to me like suction cups. I do not know what to do.
She then opened up a bit about her boyfriend, her Ricardian Poetry prof, who I assumed was a known sex offender with a walrus moustache. (…) Her tiny eyes sparkled when she told me they dressed as the Great Vowel Shift on Halloween.
One does come to appreciate that the wit with which Crosbie has impaled the poetry professor and his date is also in play in her self-descriptions, as when she tartly observes in the entry “Experiment 44. How to get through another day”:
The days are long and difficult to fill. There are only so many times you can walk your dog or lurch around in chaps and a tube top, making pancakes.
or describes her state of mind as being,
as jumpy as a cat I once had who always seemed to be having complex Vietnam flashbacks.
And so, one is compelled to continue through the story in a heightened state of conflict — one’s exasperation at war with one’s appreciation.
Somewhere in the second half of the work, things brighten subtley. There is glancing mention of having quit drinking. No doubt, the two are connected. It is fascinating to watch strength begin to seep into the writing, some softness and light allowed to manifest, lists taking on a brighter aspect, decisions improving. We are never led out into bright sunlight, but tentative concessions begin to be made to life’s small mercies, contentments and fragile moments of beauty.
In a moment of candour about the work, Crosbie notes that poet Ann Sexton (the focus of Crosbie’s doctorate studies) influenced her thinking.
I had wanted to engage in an inherently false struggle with the ending of this book, like Anne Sexton did with Live or Die.
That book is one miserable poem about addiction and suicide after the other, but it ends with transformative imagery
and she seems to have taken to heart the advice given to Sexton by Saul Bellow, which was to
Live or die, but don’t poison everything.
She had wanted, she admits,
to write a happy ending, like the ones in the only books I can read anymore, books about fat women who modify their appearance, and are loved, in the end, for their lively intelligence and carnality.
Having identified this struggle as false, however, she refuses to engage in it, choosing, instead, to
slowly [put] everything back together, which means holding the sharp, broken pieces and fitting them into an imperfect whole of my own design.
What happens when a sharply perceptive, creative, idealistic and strong-willed intelligence, with a streak of narcissistic perfectionism crashes head on into life? Well, some truculence, denial, self-pity (actually, quite a lot) and thrashing about, a few concessions, recalibration and a gradual establishment of a new equilibrium, admirable wordcraft and some pretty wicked wit. Something very much like Life Is About Losing Everything.