At a Loss for Words

By Diane Schoemperlen. HarperCollins, 188 pp, $18.95, hardcover

Two people meet, become intimate, and part; 30 years later, they meet again, become intimate again, and part again. That’s the gist of Kingston, Ontario–based writer Diane Schoemperlen’s third novel, At a Loss for Words, and to say this is a short story’s plot spun out to novel length would be kind. Instead, let’s say that it’s a short story padded with quotes from self-help books, his-and-hers horoscopes clipped from the Globe and Mail, and bizarrely explicit product-placement appearances by President’s Choice chicken tortilla soup, Obsession by Calvin Klein perfume, and Fever nail polish, in red.

Schoemperlen never names her characters, so let’s call him X and her Y. X was Y’s first lover, when she was only 18, but he left her to take a job in a faraway city. Their correspondence gradually tapers to a close, although Y carries a subconscious torch for X through several other relationships and an increasingly successful career as a writer. X eventually reappears at a book signing, Y is smitten all over again, and the two repeat the pattern of their first, failed attempt at love.

On the very last page, we discover X has a wife—although any perceptive reader will have long since intuited that sad fact. Y appears to have known it too, although this didn’t stop her from throwing herself wholeheartedly into what, for X, could never be anything more than a fling.

Oh, Y, Y, Y!

The fact that X is a cad and Y is delusional puts serious limits on our ability to care what happens to them. Schoemperlen compounds this strategic error by casting her novel in diary form. Admittedly, she does a stellar job of reproducing the tone of a journal written by a lovesick and depressed middle-aged writer, but frequent meditations on faulty plumbing, writer’s block, and Hí¤agen-Dazs do little to spur her narrative along.

Could it be that these mundane observations are Schoemperlen’s way of working through a real-life creative impasse? The author—who won a 1998 Governor General’s Award for her innovative short-story collection, Forms of Devotion—hints at that possibility with her epigraph, from Lynn Crosbie’s 2006 novel Liar: “There is some truth to this, like all lies.” As veiled truth or flawed fiction, At a Loss for Words remains resolutely unengaging.

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Beverly Akerman

Dec 2, 2009 at 9:03am

as a geneticist and a fiction writer, i'd respectfully submit you call HIM Y and HER X!