By Michael T Fournier
Maximum RocknRoll Magazine
I confess that I have a copy of Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss sitting unread in my bookshelf. A friend of mine gave it to me in 2015 while I was staying at his place during a summer tour. Here, he said, is an author who’s right up your alley: she’s into punk, and she’s from Maine. (My wife’s family is from Maine, and we both went to grad school there.) But you know about the good intentions paving the road to hell—and that’s before considering the book critic pile, which is usually consists of at least three or four new volumes calling out for review.
I was happy find Fire in the MRR stacks: here, I thought, is a perfect chance to check out an author whose stuff I’ve been meaning to read for a while—an author, it should be mentioned, with a considerable back catalogue.
When the volume arrived, I was initially bummed to find that it contained previously published stuff.
You know how it is: your record collection doubtlessly includes some B-sides/ rarities albums. These sound like a good idea, especially for completists and record nerds, but they’re called B-sides for a reason, you know? Almost fifteen years ago(!!!), I reviewed my record collection in alphabetical order and in doing so had the hardest time writing about such albums, because the level of quality between the best and worst material tends to drastically differ.
Even as you wrack your brain trying to come up with albums that buck the trend (besides Singles Going Steady, which is a given), I’m her ego tell you: don’t bother. I’m an idiot. Elizabeth Hand’s book does exactly what I’m guessing the fine folks at PM Press intend it to do: provide a quick overview of all the strong hues in Hand’s palette.
Fire. begins with a short story called “The Saffron Gatherers.” In the story, the protagonist Suzanne rekindles a long-lost relationship with a gifted writer living in San Francisco. They visit an open house and agree to move in together once she returns from a business trip. The story is festooned with references to art and wring and has a dreamlike, almost drugged quality— a languid pleasance that makes the ending all the more impactful. I won’t spoil it, but I will mention that Hand understand the power of imagination, as corny as that may sound, and makes the decision to allow readers to fill in blanks rather than needlessly spelling everything out. Like “The Saffron Gatherers,” the title story fits under the loose category of dystopian climate fiction (cli-fi, if you’re nasty—it’s a thing!). Unlike the previous story, this one relies on first-person narration. Hand repeats the trick of omitting detail here, cutting one side of the narrated story to all call, no response. It’s hard to write dialogue that sound convincingly like speech, but Hand, an expert stylist, has no such trouble.
Two pieces of Hand’s criticism ring out, calling for digging and exploration: she writes on Alice Shelton, a writer who wrote in the distinctly masculine world of 1970s science fiction under the assumed name Jamed J. Tiptree Jr., and on Thomas Disch, an openly gay 1960s science fiction writer. I love pieces like this, which allow neophytes like myself to establish a base in the past off of which to branch. Hand is generous with praise in these essays, subscribing to the punk urge of thanking tons of bands in the liner notes so listeners can do their own riffing.
There’s a biography here, too, in the shape of a member essay and an extended interview. Like her essays, these pieces showcase Hand’s generosity, as she details the events and influences that shaped her into a writer. Readers of MRR might do the same mental math as me when certain years and cities are mentioned: here, as an example, Hand mentions living in Washington DC in 1979, which immediately caused me to wonder which bands she saw. A few paragraphs later, she mentioned seeing films in Georgetown— the same theater where the Discord crew worked, maybe?— and catching the Ramones’ first area appearance.
Fire. in an installment of PM Press’s Outspoken Author series. If this slim volume is any indication, the series is a must-read, a means for readers to introduce themselves to indispensable writers like Elizabeth Hand. It’s great to be genuinely excited to dive into an author’s work— which I am. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be swimming in Generation Loss with Singles Going Steady playing in the background.