I had expected this book to take me only a day or so to read; after all it's not only quite short, it's written by one of my favourite authors. It took me more than two weeks to read. Usually taking so long with a book means either that it is extremely long, or it has trouble holding my interest. Neither was the case with At A Loss For Words. Instead I found that I was so emotionally invested in the material that I found it virtually impossible to stay with the book for any length of time. If you shortened the time frame and switched the pronouns around, the plot—a writer, suffering from writer's block, is reunited with a lost love for an intense long-distance romance, only to be callously abandoned by him a second time, with traumatic consequences—would be a pretty accurate description of the last twelve months of my life. I don't normally like to discuss personal things on this blog, particularly in the middle of a review, but I can't help but wonder if those recent events in my life are causing me to think more than I should of a weak book.
The narrator's dry, intelligent voice cleary marks At A Loss For Words as a Diane Schoemperlen book, but a lot of the careful, clever diction and playful sentence structure that are among the chief delights of her best work are missing or subdued. It would be easy to dismiss the lack of playfulness as owing to the heavy subject matter, but Schoemperlen has dealt with sombre themes before and not been any less lively or inventive. I've come to the conclusion that there's two possible explanations for this, one quite interesting, the other rather less so. The less interesting explanation is that it's a weak book and my emotional involvement with the content is making me think it's stronger than it is (not an idea I relish, on any level). The other explanation has substantial artistic merit, and strikes me as the sort of thing Schoemperlen would do, though (if it is what's going on) it's not as effective as it may sound. At A Loss For Words, despite being about a specific failed relationship, is far more general and abstract than literary fiction—and Schoemperlen's in particular—tends to be. The bulk of the novel "happens" in the form of first-person recounts of dialogue in the absence of virtually all context. Much of that dialogue, if we can rely on the narrator, is inane and clichéd and completely recognizable to anyone who's ever been furiously in love and then been hurt by that love. What I think Schoemperlen might be doing with this is examining the curious blend of sameness and hyper-specificity that comes with love and heartbreak. No love has ever been as fierce as our love, no hurt as big as our hurt, but somehow even our greatest wordsmiths can't discuss it without falling into to the same cadences as the least of us. Our experience of love and heartbreak and our reactions to them are so predictable they might be akin to genetic memory. It doesn't quite come off, but I like that idea better than being unable to trust my own judgement because of emotional turmoil.
Next up is Entitlement, by Jonathan Bennett.