Culture & Conversation

Sad Songs for Better Living

About a year ago, one of my children, who was nine at the time, asked me what I thought was a rather interesting question. We were in the kitchen and, as is most often the case in our house, there was music playing. I can’t recall the particular song, but it was something by The Smiths, or it might have been Morrissey solo. My daughter turned to me and asked, “Why do people listen to sad songs anyway?”

I found I did not have a ready answer to this question. I’d fared well over time with more standard inquiries like “Why is the sky blue?” and “What part of the pig is bacon?” Questions with definite answers inflate the level of a father’s intelligence in a child’s eyes. But now we had entered the realm of the subjective and, I realized, my answer would be as much a reflection of me as a commentary on the general public’s music listening habits. Even though I knew none really existed, I needed to find the right answer.

My daughter’s question came to mind again as I read Lynn Crosbie’s latest book, Life Is About Losing Everything. One need not turn many pages before Morrissey, in comparison, begins to seem downright exuberant. A mood of sorrow and misery resides, so well rendered it’s palpable. The book’s semi-autobiographical narrator dwells “in dark, quiet places, where people like me sit like mushrooms, easing deeper into the shit and the shade.” The line between fact and fiction is blurred in this collection of very short, memoir-like stories, vignettes, and mediations, offering a personal and honest tone, even when Crosbie is at her most fanciful (Newfoundland vacation with Veronica Lodge, anyone?).

To return to the question at hand, if so sad, why read? Hear me out:

There is the beauty of the language, and more specifically the beauty of Crosbie’s ability to counterbalance language. The raw and the deadpan flow seamlessly with the stirring and the impassioned. Deceptively coarse story titles like “A Stink For the Ages” and “I’m Pretty Like Drugs” are just as at home in Life Is About Losing Everything as passages of desolate eloquence like the final paragraph of “Eight Arms”:

(Neil) has included a series of directions to his apartment on Pine Street, to the metal fire escape where we will stand, at last, in sheets of rain, and kiss until sparks and tiny pieces of metal machinery fall, crashing, on the living street below.

There is also the matter of Lynn Crosbie being so damned funny. Her shrewd sense of humour occupies the book’s sadness; in the most woeful places, seemingly out of nowhere, a joke materializes, reminding us there’s nothing quite like a good cry and a good laugh, enjoyed together. The dejection is thick in “Maniac,” a story about being repeatedly excluded from family vacations, but we laugh at the reasons for being left out of the car, including the time “my dad wore comically high-heeled shoes and needed ‘elegant leg room’.” A rotating cast of celebrities appear in Life Is About Losing Everything and contribute delightful absurdities. Don Ho acts pretentious in his Billy Squire T-shirt while ordering wine at a restaurant. Michael Jackson consumes enormous amounts of Kentucky Fried Chicken but makes sure, conscious of the health implications, to remove the skin from his children’s drumsticks. A piece about living with Billy Joel is as touching as it is bizarre.

Finally, Life Is About Losing Everything should be read for its instances of great emotional commotion. There are rousing moments of bliss, like the “mass of cells, pinging to a new sensation” upon hearing The Cramps for the first time. And there are moments of terrible beauty, like a particularly moving scene early in the book in which Crosbie imagines her ten-year old self staring into a mirror. Following a vivid portrait of youth, of long hair, blue eyes, and freckles, the mirror becomes a portal between the past and the present, guilt admitted by the latter, a plea uttered by the former, and we are left with the jarring realization that we are only powerless to become our future selves. It is powerful passages like this one that make Life Is About Losing Everything a book that is felt as much as it is read. Kind of like a song.

And sad songs, as I ended up explaining to my daughter, are actually joyful things, things that tell us we aren’t really alone, that we’re not the only ones in the dark, things that help us feel better when we’re down, at least for a little while. She thought about this for a moment and nodded her head in understanding. Then she went off to play somewhere. I hope my answer is something she’ll recall, when she needs it, and that she’ll seek out songs and books and other beautiful things when the mood, the circumstance, requires them. Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything would be a good place for anybody to start.

My daughter, now ten, incidentally, spied the book on my desk just a few days ago. She approached, and inspected the front cover, no doubt attracted by the colours and the birds there. After a moment she scowled a little and squinted her eyes. Pointing to the title, disputing Crosbie’s claim, she declared, “That’s not even true.”

I smiled, knowing they’re both right.

Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.


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