CanLit Canon Review #19: Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers

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In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that have shaped this country.

Leonard Cohen’s second and final novel, Beautiful Losers, published in 1966, is experimental and difficult. It is also mesmerizing, though, because of its swoon-worthy writing and enthusiasm for filth.

You get this: “Come on a new journey with me, a journey only strangers can take, and we can remember it when we are ourselves again, and therefore never be merely ourselves again.”

But you also get five consecutive pages of this: “…lap lap oh pearl pink precious radio crystal marvelous fruit pit of whole bumcunt harvest appear form develop unfold unshell unskin look into cocklove lead dykeplug prickgirl nrrr grrr….”

And you get a 30-page lube-soaked attempt to restore the protagonist’s wife’s ability to have an orgasm, a few chapters in which the first letter of every word is capitalized for no apparent reason, and an entire chapter of gibberish.

Beautiful Losers is presented in three parts. Part 1 is told by the unnamed male protagonist, a scholar researching a Canadian Aboriginal tribe, the A——s. Part 2 is a letter to the protagonist from his friend and gay lover F., a former parliamentarian and Quebecois terrorist being held in a hospital for the criminally insane after blowing up a statue of Queen Victoria in Montreal. The third part is an inconclusive conclusion told in the third person.

It is a book full of death and loneliness. The protagonist’s wife, Edith, (who also regularly slept with F.) is dead, committed suicide by sitting in an elevator shaft and waiting. F. is dead, died in the mental hospital with his penis rotted from overuse (the letter from F. that makes up the second part of the novel is delivered to the protagonist five years after F.’s death). And Catherine Tekakwitha, the real-life Mohawk saint the protagonist stalks through his research, is long dead, having destroyed her body in penitence in 1680, at age 24.

Cohen weaves Catherine Tekakwitha’s longhouse upbringing and self-destructive devotion to God into the memories of the lost love triangle. Throughout the book there is longing, sexual regret, and endless tension, the last of which is mirrored on the streets of Montreal, where the Quiet Revolution is playing out.

Wanting the revolution to be louder, F. says, “I want to hammer a beautiful colored bruise on the whole American monolith. I want a breathing chimney on the corner of the continent. I want a country to break in half so men can learn to break their lives in half. I want History to jump on Canada’s spine with sharp skates. I want the edge of a tin can to drink America’s throat. I want two hundred million to know that everything can be different, any old different.”

This book will test the patience of those looking for a tidy story, but readers who are open to this daring novel that challenges the rules of storytelling are likely to fall in love with the power and excess of Beautiful Losers.