By Chris Tihor
Alan Cumyn hits the mark with his newest novel, losing it. The Ottawa-based Giller Prize finalist, with his first effort as a full-time author, snaps a dark but humorous picture of the dysfunctionality of family life.
The novel’s central character is Bob Sterling, a middle-aged professor in Ottawa who specializes in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Bob is currently married to his second wife, Julia, who is a much younger former student, and mother of his soon-to-be two-year-old son. They appear to lead a fairly average life on the surface. Average, that is, until we discover that Bob has a secret sexual fetish, thrown into high gear by a beautiful 21-year-old current student, Sienna Chu.
The story begins with Bob travelling to New York for a conference on Poe with Sienna, unbeknownst to his wife. After a disastrous experience with new mail-ordered entertainment in the bathroom of an airliner (one of his many fetishes), Bob finds himself having more and more trouble controlling his urges. One event leads to another, and Bob is soon digging a deeper and deeper hole of embarrassment fuelled by his desire.
Most of what makes losing it a good read is the opportunity to easily connect with the characters’ feelings. When placed in the shoes of Bob’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in law Lenore, we feel her confusion while at the same time feeling pity for her. We feel Julia’s stress of trying to deal with her mother’s condition and run her family at the same time. Surprisingly, even Bob, who could be seen as a weirdo, deadbeat dad or an outright sleaze-ball, still displays some innocence that sometimes allows us to relate to him. As dislikeable as he may be, we just can’t help feeling periodically sorry for him as well.
Throughout losing it, Cumyn keeps the reader ready for the collapse of any of the characters at any time, but just when he seems to have reached the climatic peak, he take the stress level to the next extreme.