These are my impressions and opinions of Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen.
This classic of Canadian literature is on one level, an innovative and postmodern novel weaving a complex web of unreliable narrators, unreliable characters, unreliable relationships, scatological and sexual themes designed to shock, and layers of reality and meaning. On another level it is an incomprehensible pastiche written by a poet trying too hard to be avante garde, while by his own admission consuming prodigious amounts of speed in order to fuel his writing and imagination.
The plot, such as there is, involves a love quadrangle between the narrator and “F”, his fellow orphanage alumni, friend and bisexual lover, and the memory of the narrator’s now deceased wife Edith and the equally deceased Mohawk Saint Kateri Tekakwitha with whom the narrator has for some reason fallen in love with through his research.
Various vignettes of these people’s bizarre and pathetic lives are interspersed with historical narratives of the Jesuits and Kateri’s life. Why is not clear. It does not clearly advance any plot or meaning.
Essentially the narrator has spent his entire life under “F” domination who is both his sometime lover and guru. Guru has taken it upon himself to mold the narrator by orchestrating a series of life experiences for the narrator, manipulating him continually, even after F dies in an insane asylum, by bequeathing a tree house to him as well as a factory, a collection of scented soaps (what the hell?), and a long letter containing final lessons. But F’s greatest lesson seems to have been to have set up the “chance” meeting between the narrator and Edith, who later becomes the narrator’s wife, and then carry on a humiliating affair with her, culminating in Edith committing suicide by positioning herself under the elevator of the couple’s apartment building. Years later, a severely constipated narrator is researching the life of Kateri Tekakwitha, perhaps for a book, though the reasons are never clearly stated. The narrator is in love and lust for the saintly Saint Kateri, whom he has come to idolize as a sort of substitute for his unfaithful wife Edith, though the reasons for that are more than a bit obscure and of course the love is unrequited.
The relationships between all of the characters is vulgar and scatological. My impression is that Cohen was trying desperately to create controversy by using language and themes that would be offensive, especially in 1966 when the novel was written, because the imagery does not flow organically from the plot. It is simply there like a garish painting that doesn’t belong on the wall. In fact this was a tactic that Cohen repeatedly adopted, such as in naming another book Flowers for Hitler, in a deliberate attempt to shock and draw attention to his edginess.
The dysfunctional relationship between the narrator, Edith and F is objectively repulsive and has no redeeming qualities; it says nothing about the human condition because the characters are not well developed and lack human qualities, being restricted to the role of doing shocking and repulsive things. The narrator comes across as a pathetic simp dominated by F, Edith and even the saintly Kateri. Did I mention he is also very constipated, as the author likes to describe. The only one not completely covered by this scatological garbage is Saint Kateri, as you would expect, but even she is portrayed as a deluded self-flagellating (literally) Christian convert who is more than a little mentally off kilter.
In an additional attempt at relevancy, Cohen also weaves in some elements of Quebec separatism, making F a Member of Parliament and leader of the independence movement. Again, this is sort of a non-sequitur where the author is trying too hard to hit all of the Canadian hot buttons.
In the end, the “coup de theatre” is that none of the may be real. F may not exist, and perhaps neither did Edith. The narrator, and not F, may be the independence leader, or perhaps the narrator and F are actually the same person and the narrator is insane, or the narrator may not be a researcher at all but just the local dirty old pervert living in a makeshift tree house. So what was the point of reading this drivel?
On a good note, the novel did not sell well and Cohen gave up writing books and focused on poetry and song writing, which he was definitely better at.
VERDICT: Avoid this overrated novel.