Beautiful Losers or How Leonard Cohen broke how I thought about fiction writing

Where do I even begin.

There’s no doubt Cohen is most well known for his poetry, for Hallelujah in particular. He became such an icon in poetry that “poet” was possibly a sexy career choice. He also wrote some fiction, one of which I read a few months ago for a class, and the other novel I had continued to read excerpts of.

Mostly, though, I want to talk about Beautiful Losers.

Dear god, Beautiful Losers.

In order to really get anywhere with Beautiful Losers, you’ll need to forget whatever you knew about the realist novel. Just, uh, throw it right out the window. Forget it existed. Open your mind to the absurd and grotesque, because the first page will just open the flood gates for questions you didn’t think you could ever be asked by the man who had given the world Hallelujah.

What’s it about? Yeah, that’s a good question too.

Beautiful Losers follows an unnamed narrator, an Anglo-Canadian historian who grew up in Montreal. He’s got a penchant for one Catherine Tekakwitha, the Native American saint, and some deep fetish of the tribe she was from. So much so, the narrator was married to a young woman who was from said unnamed tribe (Cohen is sure to only call them the A—-). His best friend, F., is a French Canadian separatist, also from Montreal, who is seeking for the most deprave way to live life. Throw in some pedophilia and rape, and you’ve got one of the strangest, “I can’t look away but I really should” books I’ve ever read.

I would have, likely, just forgotten about it after I had finished reading it. Certainly did not have any idea I would end up writing my paper on it. Beautiful Losers ended up finding a place in my heart, in some weird, fucked up place that’s adjacent to the trash because it just won’t go in. I’ve tried. I really have.

I can’t say I liked this book and I can’t say it disturbed or scarred me in any way (it takes a lot more to do that for me). What it did do, however, is shift the way I think of narrative.

Beautiful Losers, as I explored in my paper, is almost a checklist of postmodernist traits. It delves deep into the core of the realist novel, of narrative in general, and uproots it. It’s incoherent, barely follows any action, brings the reader up close and personal with the grotesque and depraved thoughts of both the narrator and F, and it makes you squirm. Chapters have only the slightest connection to each other, “scenes” seem less like scenes and more singular trains of thought, entire chapters can be written in gibberish with unusual capitalization. It isn’t interested in telling a story, it’s interested in telling and portraying the experiences of the characters, where the grotesque descriptions of bodily fluids are destabilizing to a narrative but a reality in the everyday world.

To say the story hasn’t left a lingering impression on me would be false, but it sure isn’t something that I’m particularly interested in revisiting. It isn’t the depraved adventures of the narrator and F. that make Beautiful Losers something to look to for me, but rather the piece as a whole. The realist novel imposes certain expectations onto the reader: linear action, linear narrative, some sort of logic behind the progression of events, introspection only when introspection is required (see: minimal introspection). Language is a tool to be invisible, to help the author hide behind the story they’re writing.

Cohen doesn’t do that. Cohen makes the language take front and centre.

Perhaps it stemmed from his background in poetry, whereas the realist novel often removes language in order to be transparent. It laid a level of poetry onto prose, showing that language can still be important in storytelling.

In and around the same time as finishing Beautiful Losers, I finally finished Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, which did similar things in a much more beautiful way (and way more accessible). But I found I wasn’t able to properly get my brain back into the mode of reading such language in a novel until after reading Cohen’s work. It numbed me a little, or rather, broke the rut that I had been in, where narrative = linear, logical, plot-heavy and language = transparent and easy-to-forget. I had started to let go these “laws” of writing, where one must show, don’t tell, where the time spent in a character’s brain must be accessible and easy to digest. Don’t take away from the action, god forbid you tell, even if it’s to maintain pacing. Don’t let language be pretty else you fall into the dreaded purple prose.

I don’t know if I’d ever recommend Beautiful Losers (and certainly, my prof’s had to take the book of reading lists in the past due to student protest), but I can’t say it didn’t influence me in any way. It helped remind me that the medium of literature is language and that we shouldn’t forget it. It’s a tool for more than the most basic of descriptions.

Could a better book have done that for me? Most likely. It just so happened I was forced to read this one.

And it’ll stay with me forever, honestly.

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