Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary novels

I have a long and somewhat contentious relationship with Elizabeth Hand's work. There was a lot of it in the library when I was young and reading my way through the local branch, and I found her stuff an odd combination of things I really liked and couldn't find almost anywhere else in fiction and... things that are not that. I can dissect in detail what I find good about each of her early and middle-period novels, but also dissect what I consider giant, book-breaking, tear-your-hair-and-scream flaws in every single one of them. Mortal Love, for instance, is trying really hard to do genuinely unknowable and inhuman Faerie, and approaching it from a direction completely different from Hope Mirrlees or from Susannah Clarke or even from Sylvia Townsend Warner, and also Swinburne is a major character. But the protagonist's arc relies on that old, terrible, baseless mental-health canard of 'true magic and mystery can only be accessed if you stop taking the pills that cure your mental illness', and that trope is so toxic and so cliched that I snarl every time I think about that plot point. Despite the novel being good enough otherwise that I went out and read John MacGregor's The Discovery of the Art of the Insane because it was in the works cited, and that's one of the best pieces of art history anything I've ever read. You get the idea.

There's always been a certain kind of decadence that Hand is the go-to for, though, rather like Tanith Lee, but in a modern setting. Her novels have the sort of parties in them where everyone is in such an altered state of consciousness that the paranormal slips in unnoticed around the back, in the welter of various drugs and sex and people trying and usually failing to become Great Artists. On account of this vein in her work, it's never surprised me when she gets filed under dark fantasy or under horror, because she describes a lot of the sort of thing that happens when the party circuit goes wrong, the shadow side of sixties utopianism. But I've also never thought of her as particularly dark, or particularly disturbing. I mean I had never found anything of hers disturbing, myself, though I don't know if this is one of those things where I am coming at it from a different angle than the general consensus. I've never been disturbed at least partly because one of her major flaws has always been what feels to me like a reluctance to go over the top and really commit to things, a tendency for some bit of a story to be built up as a Huge Dark Secret and then turn out to be not only quite mundane and usual but exactly what one was expecting. She'd put on the brakes when I wanted the accelerator, and I'd come away admiring the competency of her craft, but with a sense of vague annoyance.

In 2008, though, she started writing a series of crime novels.

Generation Loss, the first one, is fine. It's pretty much exactly like all the other Elizabeth Hand novels. I enjoyed it in that way where I forgot literally everything about the plot the instant I put the book down, and noted mentally only that she had distinctly turned down the presence of the overt supernatural in the story in favor of layers of subtext, but that this didn't seem to help. I'll probably reread it eventually. It's skippable. I didn't expect much from the follow-up, if she was going to write more of them, but then at some point in there I went to hear Hand give a lecture at Readercon about Norwegian and Scandinavian black metal, and my expectations rose for her next book, cautiously.

Hand is a very good lecturer, by the way. I knew precisely nothing about Norwegian black metal, and in the course of about an hour she gave a packed room of people a precis of its major players, the various bands that have become famous and their wide-ranging occult, criminal, and racist affiliations, the distinctly terrifying imagery surrounding the music (including some photographs which raised the hair on the back of my neck), and the horrible things that have happened to various people involved, mostly at each others' hands. Only at the end, when we were all sitting and wondering why any human being would get into this whole scene, did she break out the audio and play us some of the most shatteringly beautiful and surprising music that I have ever heard. I came away feeling that if her next book shared the good points of the lecture, she would really have something there.

Available Dark (2013) met all my expectations and more. There isn't a single thing wrong with it; it's plotted and characterized perfectly, it all ticks together like clockwork while still containing the messy human unpredictability of fallible people. Its center is Cassandra Neary, forty-odd, alcoholic and speed freak, still something of a name in photography circles for her single collection of pictures of her scene of doomed teenagers because that scene happened to be at CBGB. Cass is dishonest as all addicts are, basically shit at adulting, and ekes out some bare consolations in a bleak existence through trying to make and experience good art. Her eye for photos is much of what she has remaining. The novel takes her to Finland and to Iceland, where her eye for photos gets her tangled up in a perfectly mundane set of crimes, but also.

The thing is, this book is filed under Crime; nothing in it has to be supernatural, except for how it obviously is. Cass Neary, thief, cheat, and chooser of the slain, tangles with a set of symbols, ideas, and forces far older than the surface layer of the book would suggest up front, and those forces tangle right back at her. It's an impressive book, a winter book, cold and refractory and vertiginous. Until this year, I considered it Elizabeth Hand's best novel.

This year, the third one came out, Hard Light.

This is the part where it becomes difficult to write a review, because this book got me where I live. It has another perfectly mundane set of crimes, this time in London, and it works as crime fiction; it continues the layer of brilliant supernatural subtext, without losing any of its predecessor's power (there is a level on which much of this book happens because there is a baby shaman living in the middle of nowhere country who really needs somebody to talk to, and isn't Cass surprised to be that someone). There's a layer of pop-culture references, because Cass and her circles live surrounded by jukeboxes and swiped photo books and the apparatus of underground any-and-every-art, and the references that are real are so perfectly on-point that the references Hand invents slip in absolutely seamlessly. And there's a brilliant thing that goes on for the whole book, in which every single physical description of London is both accurate, something I've heard about from people who've been there or seen in photos and on the news, and at the same time is the description of a chilling techno-dystopia which reads like an Iain Sinclair wet dream. But none of that is what I found so frightening.

I don't talk about it much, but the place I grew up in was not a good place, and when I was a teenager the group of people I spent my time with was not a good group of people. I come from the kind of city that gets described as 'a good place to raise kids' because there is nothing for those kids to do and therefore theoretically no way for them to get in trouble. This is underestimating teenagers, drastically. If there is nothing that they are allowed to do that is productive and interesting and that they feel is worth their time, they will invent entire new categories of trouble to get into, and also start chewing off their own paws like so many foxes in a suburban bear-trap. I was never heavily into drugs myself. I tried a few and they didn't do much for me and I stopped, stuff that I think of as fairly normal teenage experimentation. But the people I ran with--

The crushing futility of having nothing to do but get high is part of what people try to escape by getting high. It doesn't work. The futility springs right back out afterwards. So some people, especially the sort of bright, bookish, cooped-up kid I spent my time around, will also try other avenues that might possibly be an escape. Also teenagers like edginess. What I am saying here is that I knew a lot of aspiring Satanists and chaos magicians and Crowleyites and wannabe goth sorcerers, and some of them were into things that were pretty thoroughly fucked up. I was always considered something of a goody-two-shoes by that crowd, but I knew them. My abusive high school ex-boyfriend, who was aiming at Thelema by way of Vampire: The Masquerade, creeped me out impressively once by taking me on a roadtrip several states away to visit a relative of his, literally vanishing into the night upon getting there, and coming into our bedroom at six in the morning straight from the deck outside, stark naked and so covered in blood I did not immediately recognize him. The only thing I have ever been able to ascertain about the blood is that it wasn't his.

Anyway, I got out of that whole scene, by going off to college a long way distant, meeting a whole new set of people, and most importantly having something productive and interesting to do with my life. But I remember the ever-tightening clutch of knowing that this terrible place was all there was going to be, weekend after weekend of aimlessness broken up only by people finding new and impressive ways to be awful to each other. I know what it's like to go to bed and sleep twelve hours and get up and find that the party from the night before is still going on and the same people are not only still at it but having the same stoned set of useless conversations, as though time had slipped a groove. I had my way out, and I clutched at that even when it was a vague future glimmer that I did not really believe in.

That place is where Cass Neary lives, except that the only thing that gets her out of it is the jolt of the supernatural. The gods in these books drink blood, and that's better than the darkness that is simply human darkness, because it is, at least, completely honest. If it weren't for the gods calling her name, Cass would live her whole life in yesterday's parties, and then overdose. I have to say, any book which makes the people perpetrating human sacrifice genuinely seem as though they have the cleaner, more reasonable responses to their situation has some seriously dark wallop to it. Hand manages to clearly separate the sort of petty never-was pretension that my ex-boyfriend dealt in from the people who are devotedly doing dark things because of what they really believe, and the first lot come off terribly, as they ought to due to all of the bullshit. But the second set... let's just say I'm very glad I never met anybody like that when I was a teenager. Let's say that concept is part of what frightens me.

Greil Marcus, in his essential secret history Lipstick Traces, makes a distinction that has been very useful to me in my life, the distinction between negationist art and nihilistic art. Negationist art is art which is trying to tear down established structures in order to free people to put up something new in their place. It often has no idea what the new things should be, and it's not in the putting-things-up business itself, but the action of making a space for the future is, while it involves destruction, also to the negationist essentially creative. Nihilistic art is trying to tear down established structures in order to tear them down. It wishes nothing to remain. It is trying to stop anybody else from being in the putting-things-up business. Elizabeth Hand is not remotely a nihilist. This is part of what makes the book so disturbing. It would be much easier to deal with if it were nihilist. It would be easier to refute its characterizations, for one thing, and say, well, people don't behave like this. The thing is, though, they actually do. The fact that Cass's cockeyed moments of transcendence are entirely supernatural makes the rest of her life even more believably bitter.

Hard Light is a claustrophobic masterpiece without a word out of place, a waking nightmare grounded in enough reality to make its dreamscape stable, and it's the novel I always wanted from Elizabeth Hand and never dared to expect. It's chilling and luminous and full of amazing research into a lot of real and imaginary history, and, though I know I haven't made it seem like it, it's funny as hell. I treasure it.

I have no idea whether she's going to write another one. It could go either way, and either way would work for me. I look forward to whatever Elizabeth Hand decides to write next, but even if the next thing isn't half as good, this is the kind of book to hold onto, to think, well, I will always have this one. Whenever I dare to reread it.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.