Generation Loss
by Elizabeth Hand
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
While other authors retreat into the ivory
tower, Elizabeth Hand engages in a literary
career more akin to guerrilla warfare over
constantly changing terrain. "I had to become

a writer," Hand has
noted, “because my
education had
left me unsuited
for a decent well-
paying job." Along
the way, she has
drawn inspiration
from the Beats,
and punk rockers
and French sym-
bolist poets, but
Hand’s own work
defies pigeonholing.  
Indeed, few writers
have flourished in
a more diverse range of genres. Hand’s first
story was published in
Twilight Zone magazine,
and she later created and wrote the Anima
series for DC Comics. Hand’s award-winning
1994 novel
Waking the Moon delves into the
gothic supernatural with a heavy dose of

mythic elements.  She has also worked in
straight sci-fi and authored Star Wars series
fiction, as well as novelizations of various

films.  On the other hand, Hand’s novel
Generation Loss has no element of the
supernatural, fantastic or technologically
advanced about it—and operates as a

gripping, if unconventional, psychological
thriller.  The high-profile commercial angle of
many of these projects might lead you brand

this author as a purveyor of escapism and
formulaic fiction, yet Hand defies simple
categorization and her best writing stands

out for its risk-taking and literary flair.
“Real myths are often strange and startlingly
unfamiliar,” Hand has noted, “and don't

always give up their meanings easily.” A
similar depth and multivalent quality is also
part of this author’s wide-ranging body of

Further Clues:

An Interview with Elizabeth Hand by Jeff VanderMeer

Elizabeth Hand's web site

Video interview with Elizabeth Hand from ReaderCon
Essay by Ted Gioia

"Some people make their own bad luck," explains
Cassandra Neary, the narrator of
Generation Loss.
"Others, I help them out."

Neary's life is a wreck, but it’s an open question
whether she inflicts the most damage on herself or
those around her. Either way, the toll is considerable.
As an experiment, try tabulating the bad decisions,
classless moves, cheap shots,
and broken laws our heroine
leaves in her wake during the
course of this novel—I bet
you will lose count before
you’re fifty pages into it.   

Even so, Ms. Neary is not your
typical druggie burnout trouble-
maker, but once enjoyed a brief
taste of fame. A photographer
who specialized in documenting
the seamier side of  New York
counterculture in the 1980s, her reputation rests on
a single book of disturbing images,
Dead Girls, which
created a short-lived buzz. Amidst a peer group that

pushed the envelope, Neary pushed further
than most. But that was decades ago, and our narrator
is now middle-aged, surviving paycheck to paycheck as
a stock room clerk at the Strand Bookstore. She’s older
and obviously not much wiser, but neither has she
mellowed with age.   

It's testimony to the uneasy postmodern tenor of this
mystery that two-thirds of the way through you still
won’t be quite sure whether our narrator will solve a
crime…or perhaps commit one.  Lisbeth Salander, of
dragon tattoo fame, looks like a candidate for girl scout
troop leader by comparison with this nihilist with a
Konica. At an accident site, Neary is more likely to take
snapshots than call for help—indeed the equivocal role
that texts and textuality play in other postmodern
mysteries is here replaced by an obsession with images
and representation.
Death is eidos of the photograph,
Neary explains, citing Roland Barthes, but then
continues: "Not even death is static like a picture is.
If you look at a corpse long enough, you see things
move beneath the skin, as real and liquid as the blood
in your own veins."

This conflict between image and reality plays out even
in the novel’s title.  No, it is
not an allusion to a famous
quote by Gertrude Stein.  The term ostensibly describes
the gradual loss of verisimilitude as an image is copied
over and over again. Yet the idea that a different kind
of generation suffers a different kind of loss is equally
present in Hand's novel—and remains connected to this
same concept of images distancing us from the reality
they aim to depict.  

Neary is lured to a desolate coastal area in Maine,
where she has been promised an interview with
Aphrodite Kamestos, a reclusive photographer who
has stayed out of the public eye for many years. The
interview proves problematic—Kamestos may be
even more of a burnout than Neary herself—but
during the course of the trip our narrator runs into a
troubling series of mysterious circumstances,
unanswered questions and possible clues. A teenage
girl she encounters on her first night in Maine goes
missing the next day…and is only the latest in a series
of unexplained disappearances in the area. Wherever
else our heroine turns, bad things tend to happen—a
few due to her own intervention, some by accident,
still others because of causes unknown.  

Although certain familiar elements of genre fiction
appear from time to time in
Generation Loss, author
Elizabeth Hand avoids the usual formulas of mystery
and crime stories. The opening three chapters might
convince many readers that this is a book about drug
addiction or borderline personality disorder—intensely
conceived and brilliantly written, they are my favorite
part of this novel, although they do little to push
forward the main plot of
Generation Loss. In truth, for
most other authors as schooled in genre fiction as Ms.
Hand, this type of character description and scene
setting would be mere boilerplate.  But here, as
elsewhere in the novel, Hand shows that she is as acute
in probing psychology as in setting up the "crime
scene investigation" details that are so popular in
contemporary storytelling.  Hand takes her time, and
the book benefits from her care and risk-taking—yet,
by the same token,
Generation Loss never lags or loses
its direction.  Indeed, one of the great marvels of this
novel is how the plot moves forward even when the
main characters seem too psychically damaged to finish
a game of checkers, let alone solve a mystery.  

Make no mistake, this is a disturbing book—but
disturbing in a thought-provoking, rather than merely
gut-wrenching, manner.   Put simply, the narrator of
this story is not the only person who values
representation over reality, and even as you are tempted
to sit in judgment of these characters, you may recognize
something essential and emblematic—and perhaps too
close to home—about their bad choices. Indeed,
Generation Loss does a striking job of exploring the
grotesque side of the postmodern ethos even as it
embraces its tenets.  But that critique is merely present
as implication, in a book that many will merely read
as a chilling thriller, and not be disappointed.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest
book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University

Essay published August 23, 2011
Click on image to purchase
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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