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March 30, 2008

At a Loss For Words

Governor General’s Award-winning writer Diane Schoemperlen’s latest novel At a Loss for Words is deeply referential. Its tone in the tradition of Lynn Crosbie’s Liar and Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. (I wonder, is “Spurned Lover Narrative” actually a Can-Lit sub-genre?). And Schoemperlen certainly doesn’t couch these references– using Crosbie’s “There is some truth to this, like all lies” from Liar as her epigraph; later she writes “But I did cry at the train station… I had an epiphany about the fact that there are a goodly number of public places in which crying is acceptable, train stations definitely being one of them…”.

But by far, Schoemperlen’s most intriguing reference in this work is to herself. And though usually I find biography a tiresome approach to fiction, the clues in this direction are marvelously intriguing, (perhaps?) intentionally integral to the work. Actually, this story of a writer with writer’s block (“a writer who cannot write”) references many works, the narrator eager to distract herself from not writing, preferring to quote from other books instead (books on writer’s block among them), and at one point she tells us she is quoting herself: “If I may be so bold… here’s a sentence I like: It is only in retrospect that I understand that obsession has nothing to do with love and everything to do with anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty and fear.” This being a line from Schoemperlen’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found, so how positively meta.

And obsession is central to this “post-romantic novel”, the narrator recovering from the end of a long-distance love affair. Thirty years after her first love breaks her heart, she meets him again and dares to imagine things will be different. Decides that “being with him again would erase every rotten thing that had happened to [her] in the meantime”. When this proves not to be the case, she’s left shattered, “at a loss for words.” The last point proven otherwise as she writes this novel instead, recounting her romance with hindsight. The story at times tragic, altogether cringe-worthy when it hits close to home. Structured in the second-person, employing recounted emails, a “he said/she said” volleying back and forth, but then it’s “I said/you said”– objectivity is hardly Schoemperlen’s intention after all.

Marketed as “a bittersweet comedy for anyone who has ever loved and lost”, such a description seems to me to be undermine the “bitter”. Because the tone here strikes me as more venomous than sweet, and though the comedy is present, there is nothing light about this book. So much is going on– the blurring of fact and fiction, an exploration of writer’s block, an illustration of the writing life, a social satire. Most essentially though, At a Loss for Words is an exercise in revenge and herein lies its triumph.

4 thoughts on “At a Loss For Words”

  1. Panic says:

    Question: How did you feel about Liar?

  2. Kate S. says:

    I was really put off by what I gleaned about this book from Caroline Adderson’s review of it in the Globe and Mail. (Not that Adderson meant to put anyone off, as she freely admits to being a close friend of Schoemperlen’s in the review–I still can’t get my head around the weirdness of the Globe assigning her the book to review and her agreeing to do it!) But you’ve made me rethink my decision not to read it. From your account it sounds like there is a great deal there to mull over. And I’m still chuckling over your aside about “Spurned Lover Narrative” as a Can-Lit sub-genre!

  3. patricia says:

    Yes, I was reminded of Elizabeth’s Smart ‘By Grand Central Station…’ when I started reading this book, which actually made me feel a tad worried (you know how I feel about Smart’s book).

    I just finished ‘At a Loss For Words’ this morning, and am still letting it sift and settle in my mind. So far, it is leaving a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m trying to figure out why. Many times while reading this book I felt very uncomfortable, unhappy and annoyed. Which I’m sure is what the author intended. I have to think about it some more…

  4. Kerry says:

    You’re right Patricia– if is such a discomforting read. And in wider terms, its nastiness is appalling. But what Schoemperlen set out to do, she seemed to achieve with aplomb. And there are so many way so to approach the book that, particularly for a book so small, made it such a worthwhile read, in my opinion. Speaking in purely literary terms, I think she’s created something quite remarkable.

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