Beautiful Losers

by Leonard Cohen

Beautiful Losers was apparently a big deal when it was originally published in the ’60s. From what I’ve read, critics understood it to be the most interesting and unique Canadian novel of its time, but for the most part it was panned for being incoherent and vulgar. (And, I mean, it is, so it’s definitely not something I’d recommend to you should either of those things be a deal breaker.) But it was also a brave experiment––one strongly influenced by fasting and amphetamines, I’m led to believe––that is largely credited for introducing this type of avant-garde literature to the world of Canadian publishing, though not truly appreciated until Cohen’s music career took off.

Beautiful Losers consists of two separate but intertwining narratives. In the modern day, we follow the trio of an unnamed narrator, his wife, Edith, and their friend, F., as they explore their shared life through a wild abandon of sex and drugs. This is placed against the story of Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th century Iroquois saint, as she discovers her faith. At first, the two stories appear to act in contrast, placing the faithless next to the faithful, but it soon becomes apparent that this is far from accurate. On one hand, Catherine’s story takes on the grotesque as her closeness with God becomes increasingly reliant on extreme acts of fasting and self-flagellation. And, on the flip side, moments of clarity and wit reveal themselves from within F.’s mysterious ramblings; over time, he starts to come across as less a simple sexual deviant and more as someone at one with himself and with the world around him. It’s as though Cohen is suggesting that true enlightenment or sainthood don’t exclude themselves from ugliness, but, rather, walk in step with it, that actually living life and emerging with real understanding of both the material and spiritual world requires that we dive into all of it, including aspects that frighten or disturb us.

The book’s definitely not always easy to follow, and I don’t feel that the author’s experiments were always successful, but the writing is more often than not skilful, especially where the dialogue is concerned. Speaking often goes uninterrupted by description, and the author makes actions become apparent from what was said, which does wonders for the book’s flow. And, overall, I think the writing’s clever and even, at times, profound. The profundity just happens to be hidden within the filth, and the author forces you to wade through to find it.