In Burridge Unbound, his extraordinary, Gillernominated book from last year, Alan Cumyn spun the anguished tale of a Canadian humanrights activist who returns to the Asian country where he endured months of torture. Already, the Ottawa writer is back with another novel, his fifth in eight years. This time, Cumyn, 41, has shifted his gaze from the broad, ghastly canvas of global inhumanity to the prickly confines of the family. And once again, he proves himself a bravely original, assured storyteller.
Losing It also displays a knack for absurdist humour that wasn’t evident in Burridge. The book chronicles several days in a household that’s like most-ordinary on the surface, bizarre in the most surprising and often funny ways. Bob Sterling is a middle-aged English professor in Ottawa, a loving husband and a largely inept new father. As the novel opens, he’s poised to risk it all for a nubile studentand for a sexual fetish he can no longer contain in the realm of fantasy (it would spoil readers’ fun to divulge too much about it). His much younger wife, Julia, formerly his student, has put her own academic aspirations on hold to look after their son, Matthew, who is almost 2. And she is completely spent from also having to shoulder responsibility for her mother, Lenore, now adrift in the murk of Alzheimer’s. Yet Julia remains the smart, solid nucleus of the clan, trying to hold things together while the others “lose it” to the unreason always ready to intrude on even the most ordered lives.
For Bob, it all starts to give way when he travels to New York City for a conference on Edgar Allan Poe, his specialty, with a beautiful student named Sienna. His infatuation with her coincides with a decision to try out some mail-order sex paraphernalia. There is much hilarity as Bob’s contraption, and his kinky precoital grooming, repeatedly take him to the abyss of embarrassment rather than the heights of pleasure. But Cumyn is also an astute satirist who uses the narcissistic Bob to take some sharp swipes at male academia, and at men in general.
Back on the home front, Lenore escapes from the institution where a guilty Julia has placed her. The daughter frantically joins a
police sweep of the park where Lenore was spotted, all the while remembering the takecharge woman her mother once was.
To this slice of life-in-crisis Cumyn brings a subtle understanding of volatile family chemistry-how Julia can careen from maternal adoration to rage to guilt in seconds, how spouses communicate in emotion-fraught shorthand. His writing, meanwhile, is often virtuosic. The lengthy segments told from Lenore’s addled
point of view are brilliant and moving: despite her confusion, she perceives that Julia has chosen a husband who’s too much like the hard-drinking Trevor, Lenore's deceased spouse. Cumyn also presents a vivid impression of Sienna’s state of mind when under the influence of a stimulant called clarity, which sounds like ecstasy. And he must have had a ball penning Sienna’s druggy poetry, which is spectacularly ridiculous, like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD.
But it’s Bob who is most memorable in Losing It. He is narcissistic and traitorous, but almost endearing by the end of the novel, perhaps because he is so feckless, even innocent, as a sexual deviant. Cumyn’s view seems to be that all you can do in the face of urges like Bob’s, which give the finger to any traditional sense of a meaningful life, is to laugh wryly and carry on-or, in Lenore’s words, “forgive and ferment.” Patricia Hluchy
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