Beautiful Losers

book by Leonard Cohen
Annotation by Philip Barragan

Beautiful Losers was a truly unexpected delight. Cohen’s writing is vivid, gross, deep and most of all, surprising. I followed him into his world of love, anguish, sex and adoration of the indigenous tribes of Canada. Cohen captivates the reader seductively and slowly through extraordinary characters in an ordinary world. And through this book, it is impossible to not reflect on one’s own life and lifestyle. I couldn’t help but explore my own values and morals, and what it means to be human. This book challenged my own comfort level with my body, sex and sexuality and what it means to be loved.

Cohen’s unique and bold skill of using the indigenous character Catherine Tekakwitha (CT) to tell his own story was beautifully done. Through CT, Cohen explored passion for life, love and physical intimacy. But his exploration goes so much further. CT’s nature as a historical character provided a certain safety and distance thereby making his quest for a spiritual and sexual relationship with CT more of an intellectual exercise.

An anonymous quote describes Cohen’s writing as “incandescent in its prose.” Cohen’s prose was lyrical, honest, unpretentious, and solid. Images of everyday life were painted with brilliant colors. His radical style tore the page apart while the words drilled into my mind the images of sex and life played out in an unconventional manner.

In Chapter 17, the style of writing takes the form of an unconventional prayer. His capitalizing every word slowed down the pace of the read. I took my time to read it over and over trying to understand what Cohen meant. I am still not sure I understand but I am left with vivid and piercing images:

O God, Your Moring Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge of Spikes…

Cohen describes CT with disturbing sexually images of a young adolescent girl as he explores the destruction of beauty through the rape of a young girl: “Magic Trees sawed with a crucifix. Murder the saplings. Bittersweet is the cunt sap of a thirteen year old.” Cohen’s writing can blindside his readers, however one has to look beyond the distressing story to see what he (possibly) could have meant. I was invested to find out what he had in store for me while on this journey.

Cohen’s casual reference to gay sex is subtle and glides in under the radar of the reader. I was surprised how the two male characters enjoyed themselves so completely without the guilt of societal conventions. The friendship of the two main male characters is complex and not easy to understand. From love to anger, sympathy to jealousy, the boundaries of what a relationship should be are specifically challenged.

The book was written in 1966, and despite being forty-three years old, it fits into today’s market for edgy and contemporary literature. The language used by Cohen is modern and the subject of the nature of love and relationships is relevant to today’s world.

Cohen’s weaving of CT’s story into the wife of the protagonist brought the story into heavy focus for me. From the fantasy CT to the actual character of Edith, the reader makes the unfortunate connection between the two. “Edith, forgive me, it was the thirteen-year-old victim I always fucked.” The protagonist’s admission of his sexual desires for the historical CT against the rape of the younger Edith blended the two characters together creating a humanized portrait of the two women. They were human, after all. Neither of the two women were “other” any longer. Cohen’s not so subtle storytelling brought this into focus.

Beautiful Losers was a surprisingly enjoyable read. The characters were motivated, engaging and unique while never following an expected path. They were written with an independent spirit and I enjoyed being surprised by the choices they made.

Cohen’s prose is acerbic and then immediately lyrical. His style is surprisingly modern with interesting characters that move the story along. Though the characters frequently blend into one voice, the dialog was natural and unusually stylized with hyphens instead of quotation marks. The language was at times abrupt and sometimes waxing poetic with beautiful and powerful words that had disconcerting effect on me. Beautiful Losers is an excellent example of stepping outside the boundaries of convention.

Leonard Cohen took a summer in Greece to write this book. Under the hot sun his precious words were burned onto the page and arranged into a curious story. Cohen’s unusual novel showed me that even in experimental writing, the narrative remains important. The reader is invested to get to the end. Cohen seemed to try and lose me throughout the book, but I had to know how the story ended. Regardless of how pretty the words may be, and unique the writing style becomes, the end of the story must have some pay-off for the reader, and Beautiful Losers almost meets that expectation.

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