Like the boomers before them, Generation Xers are having a hard time with their inevitable oldness. Aging might seem like the ultimate First World problem, but the frequency and stridency of declarations like “50 is the new 30!” betray our anxieties. It’s not surprising that the first two generations ceaselessly bombarded by the youth-worshipping, “Hope I die before I get old” ethos of pop culture would be especially troubled by age and mortality.
Life is About Losing Everything, Globe and Mail columnist, poet, professor and provacateuse Lynn Crosbie’s latest work, chronicles her slouching toward middle age. She does not go gently. She rages, she mourns, she reminisces, she fantasizes, she curses. She gets sloppy drunk, she pops pills, she snorts rails, and then she quits everything. She falls in and out of tempestuous affairs, into sloughs of despond and isolation, and in love with her dog, Francis, “who is a very good boy.”
The nice people at Anansi describe this as part fiction, part fantastical memoir. Crosbie takes her title from boxer Mike Tyson, the sort of larger-than-life celebrity she adores and analyzes in her column.
While she does not lose everything – she remains employed, published and beloved by a long list of acknowledgees – it is clear that the seven years she documents were harrowing ones for Crosbie. As she writes, “I am slowly putting everything back together, which means holding the sharp, broken pieces and fitting them into an imperfect whole of my own design.”
Crosbie has long been interested in the confessional mode; she wrote her doctoral dissertation on Anne Sexton. In one story here, she vividly imagines a slasher movie, starring a “still pretty” zombie Sylvia Plath. “Her brain is mostly liquid: the poems are terrible,” but Zombie Plath does manage to torch the greasy grotto of Erica Jong.
Crosbie continues to share Plath and Sexton’s fascination with sex, madness and self-dramatization, but she has now outlived them both. Their tragic suicides spared them the midlife indignities Crosbie endures. Friends die. Lovers leave. Relationships end. Her body fattens and fails her. She feels sick and utterly solitary: “The last time a man walked by and looked right through me, I stopped him and shook his hand. I am resigned to this, I told him. To living the rest of my life without love; to my deterioration.”
The writing is a bit bluer and more diffuse than her column. Imagine Courtney Love with the benefits of a graduate education, or Kathy Acker slightly gentled by CanLit prettiness and politesse. Just as Crosbie draws no distinction between biography and fantasy, so too does she mix poetry and prose. Baudelaire once described poetic prose as a vine of poetry climbing a rod of prose. Crosbie’s writing is more like a dirty silk stocking twined around a cat-scratched bedpost, or faded prison tattoos snaking up the leathery arm of an old drunk.
The locations are real and will be familiar to Torontonians. Doubtless some of the local literati will have gossipy fun identifying the people who lurk behind Crosbie’s pseudonyms for her pals, exes and neighbours. Presumably, her assignations with a robot, Billy Joel and Don Ho are flights of fancy.
Sometimes Crosbie’s prosaic complaints and observations, and her poetic flourishes, make for a lurching and jarring read, clashing like a sad grey sweatsuit accessorized with red lipstick, aggressive jewellery and a leopard-skin pillbox hat.
Moreover, even though all the stories are quite short, this book is much longer than Crosbie’s previous works. This is simply to say that it might have worked better as two books, a more straightforward autobiography and a series of fictions or elegies. The material about her friends and lovers, the dead and the lost, with a bit more chronological scaffolding and character development, would make for a compelling memoir of Toronto’s downtown demimonde.
Perhaps this is merely genre-policing fuddy-duddyism on my part, and Crosbie’s unruly, lurid writing is the only way she can capture her unruly life. “I had hoped to write a happy ending, like the ones in the only books I can read any more,” she writes. “But that would be a lie. Life racks back and forth between ups and downs. It is not a single arrow going in one direction or another.”
Laura Penny also appreciates the poetic stylings of Mike Tyson. She lives in Halifax.