At a Loss for Words
by Diane Schoemperlen
It may be trite to remark that romance, and all its iterations, is among the most employed themes in all of literature. Recent years’ examples have run the gamut in terms of quality, from the sublime intelligence of Stephen Marche’s Raymond and Hannah to the simpering idiocy of Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes.
Diane Schoemperlen is no stranger to the passions and perils of the heart. The Canadian author has past mined this vein with great success with her novel In the Language of Love and her Governor General’s Award –winning short story collection Forms of Devotion.
Schoemperlen has proven herself both an excellent stylist and an expert navigator of human foibles. Unfortunately, her latest novel, At a Loss for Words, is supremely disappointing.
The unnamed narrator of Loss suffers from insomnia, has recently undergone a severe break-up, and is “a writer who cannot write.” Stumped for words and ideas, she turns to writers’ self-help books for inspiration, all of which spit out hackneyed advice along the lines of “Write on colored paper” and “Write about a time you were misunderstood.”
As she writes through her block, she begins to reveal facets of the relationship that has left her shattered. Walking through the steps of the romance from giddy first meeting to tear-soaked denouement, Schoemperlen shows an expert sense of pacing, portioning out the slow reveal with the sometimes-bizarre recommendations of the self-help books.
A reunion with a departed lover of thirty years previous, this new/old love at first leaves her in a state of unadorned bliss. “When you’re in love, every little thing furnished further evidence of the fact that the two of you are indeed fated to live together happily ever after.”
The lovers are immediately in a sugary worship of each other that leaves everything they utter or write dripping with syrup, capping each sentence with an exclamation point of idolization. “Look what love does to language,” Schoemperlen writes. “Either it sends you into breathless, shameless, hyperbolic logorrhea…or it leaves you wordless altogether.”
While it may have been Schoemperlen’s point to juxtapose this excessively purple prose with the reality of the ultimate betrayal, the dialogue is at first amusing, then irritating, and eventually exhausting. The narrator’s near-constant self-involvement may be realistic in terms of her pain, but as a narrative device it only serves to make her exceptionally unlikable, and distances the reader from any possible empathy with her plight.
As a result, At a Loss for Words, slight as it is, becomes a chore to finish. The final pages, complete with ‘you go, girl!’ conclusion, are tiresome and repetitive. A concluding twist near the end comes too late, as the reader is dulled into apathy.
There is personal truth and ache in what Schoemperlen writes about, and it leaks into the story in unexpected ways. “Sometimes I wish I could just put you back in the box where I used to keep you,” the narrator comments. “I guess I’m going to cut off your legs to fit you back in there.” Such barbs have the sting of authenticity, but they are too few and too far between to make any impact.
In Forms of Devotion, there is a wonderful story entitled “How to Write a Serious Novel About Love.” It is wise, witty, weird, and true, a spectacularly funny examination of the form while being itself a touching love story. It says more in fifteen pages than the whole of At a Loss for Words, and resonates far, far longer.
[Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press, February 10, 2008]