Losing It

Losing It

3.0 1
by Alan Cumyn

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Sometimes those who have the most seem bent on throwing it away. Meet Bob Sterling, a comfortable middle-aged professor, a specialist in the life of Edgar Allan Poe, married to a former student with whom he has a young son. In the space of a week his family, marriage, career, sanity, and life are brought to the brink of ruin in the aftermath of a trip he makes with


Sometimes those who have the most seem bent on throwing it away. Meet Bob Sterling, a comfortable middle-aged professor, a specialist in the life of Edgar Allan Poe, married to a former student with whom he has a young son. In the space of a week his family, marriage, career, sanity, and life are brought to the brink of ruin in the aftermath of a trip he makes with a student, the intense young poet Sienna Chu, who tweaks into florescence a long-harboured, secret sexual fetish. Then add to the mix the misadventures of his wife’s mentally failing mother, a shy night prowler, and Sienna’s explosive techno-junkie roommate. Poignant and gritty, tantalizingly erotic, Losing It is a high-wire act that plays out as a delicious blend of darkness and humour as it embraces the surprising emotional connections that are made in the midst of life’s madness.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Think Woody Allen meets Philip Roth meets American Beauty. The book is very funny and very dark.”
Globe and Mail

“Cumyn proves himself a bravely original, assured storyteller.… Brilliant and moving.…”

“An amazing achievement.…I was swept up by Cumyn’s uncanny wisdom about the inside of the human mind, by his mesmerizing devotion to telling detail, by his vision of absurdity couched in lovable (or banal) ordinariness. Cumyn’s talent for fiction is absolutely original; it hits the reader (this one, at least) with the most refreshing and exhilarating shock.”
–Bronwyn Drainie

“Cumyn charges headlong into Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess country and stakes out a new place in it.…Cumyn is a fine writer.”
–Montreal Gazette

“A brilliant tour de force that pushes past the boundaries of expectation and predictability. Losing It is a funny, fascinating novel. . . . An irrepressible book.…”
Globe and Mail

“Cumyn is a gifted writer who’s demonstrated command of a wide breadth of theme. He’s certainly deft at creating tautly entertaining and viscerally convincing portrayals of men and women twisted to the snapping point by their unwillingness to accept themselves as they are.”
National Post

“With considerable flair, Cumyn has created a dysfunctional Canadian family tiptoeing toward chaos on stiletto heels.”
Ottawa X Press

“[Cumyn] has an uncanny way of putting himself deep inside his characters’ heads.…He draws his characters beautifully.…A highly readable novel by a writer with dazzling ability.”
Vancouver Sun

“The reader experiences a kind of emotional variegation: a bold stripe of comedy yields to a paler, frailer shade of poignancy.”
Ottawa Citizen

Publishers Weekly
It takes only a week for the Sterling household to crumble and collapse in Canadian writer Cumyn's first novel to be published in the U.S. The Sterlings are ordinary members of the educated middle class living in Ottawa, but turmoil lurks beneath their surface calm. Bob Sterling, a professor of literature specializing in Edgar Allan Poe, is secretly obsessed with women's underthings; Julia, Bob's much younger wife and former student, is quietly losing her mind from the exhaustion of caring for Matthew, their two-year-old, and her mother, Lenore, who is tormented by Alzheimer's. Lenore's illness and Bob's lechery cause the fall of the house of Sterling, both literally (Lenore, under the delusion that she is in prison, starts a fire and burns down the house) and figuratively. Bob gets involved with Sienna Chu, a long-legged coed who exudes erotic promise and writes incomprehensible verse, and is coaxed by her into donning female lingerie and a red dress in his office. Even more foolishly, Bob lets Sienna photograph him, an obviously risky act in the age of the Internet, as Bob soon discovers. Cumyn moves his story along briskly, leaping from one perspective to another. His skill with voices is akin to mimicry: he can transition from Lenore's Bosch-like inner life to Bob's seedier consciousness without a false step. The result is an unclassifiable novel that possesses the precision of a mathematical theorem, the hilarity of a Marx Brother's skit and the pathos of confession. (Jan.) Forecast: Two of Cumyn's previous novels were prizewinners in Canada, which should make it easier for this book to win review attention here. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shades of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Cumyn's darkly comic novel is the story of a family in meltdown. Julia Sterling, sleep-deprived slave to her demanding, still-nursing, two-year-old son and to her Alzheimer's-stricken mother, is "losing it." Julia's mother, Lenore, is losing it big time, as Alzheimer's both dispatches and confuses her present and past. And Julia's husband, a college professor, is about to lose everything, as he gives in to an attraction for an undergraduate and to the fulfillment of a rather kinky fetish. Propelled along by Julia's, Lenore's, and Bob's perspectives, as well as that of a former high school classmate of Julia who still pines after her, the story never seems as bizarre as the individual incidents: Lenore's escapades outside the nursing home, Bob's all-too-public "outing" on the Internet, the ensuing chaos after fire destroys Julia and Bob's home, and Bob's pitiful machinations to keep Julia in the dark about his fetish. Like Cumyn's Burridge Unbound (2000), a winner of the Ottawa Book Award, and The Corrections, this is an exceptional, affecting work that belongs in most fiction collections.-Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A riotous tale of sexual perversities in Ottawa and the afflictions of Job as they are visited upon a hapless middle-aged college professor. If David Lodge had written the script for Glen or Glenda?, it might have turned out something like this. Begin with one Bob Sterling, a quiet family man and a teacher at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Bob has an attractive and pleasant wife named Julia and a rollicking baby boy named Matthew. His mother-in-law Lenore is increasingly senile, but she's being well looked-after in the Fallowfields Home. Bob drinks a bit more than he should, but his career seems assured and his life is pretty well under control-except for his one great, secret vice: Bob likes to wear women's clothing. The only person who knows is Sienna Chu, a Chinese-Irish graduate student who travels with Bob to a Poe conference in New York and seduces him in his hotel room. No sooner has Bob found bliss with the domineering Sienna, however, than word arrives that his mother-in-law has escaped from Fallowfields. After she's found wandering the streets of Ottawa, Julia decides Lenore needs to live with them for her own safety. This makes home life more than slightly unpleasant, and drives Bob even deeper into the clutches of Sienna-who, unfortunately, has a jealous boyfriend who vows revenge on Bob. Julia, meanwhile, finds herself the object of increasing attention from Donny Clatch, an old schoolmate who's now renovating her bathroom. Just when it looks like all hell is going to break loose, the house burns down-set afire by the demented Lenore. Can a conflagration save a troubled family? Remember the story of the Phoenix? Rich, witty,outrageous fun: Canadian author Cumyn, in his US debut, is not afraid to go over the top for effect, but he is patient and painstaking enough to bring off a coherent and well-thought-out storyline.

Product Details

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt



“You aren’t going to throw that out,” Lenore said, standing straight to stop it once and for all, this dreadful boxing business. She plucked the thing out, turned it around in her hands.

“What is it?” Julia asked. Sharply. Just like a daughter to know exactly how to say things to make it difficult, Lenore thought. Julia had been doing this all her life. Lenore remembered clearly: she never cleaned up. Always gave a hard time over food, clothes, whatever. This Lenore remembered.

What is it?” Julia asked again. Lenore turned it around and around. It had a lever and holes in the side. Everybody knew what it was.

“It’s a whatsit,” Lenore said quickly. “You know what it is.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Julia said, too patient this time. That too was always a problem with Julia.

“You know what it is,” Lenore muttered, turning it around. “It’s for things.”

“For things, Mother?” That tone again. Words wouldn’t form properly. That’s why she was using it. She always wanted to take over, wear her shoes, her lipstick, her earrings. Now this.

“If we don’t know what it is, it’s going out,” Julia said. “You’ve had weeks to pack.” Just the way she said it. “We only have a few hours left. It’s time for hard decisions. There isn’t much room in the new place.”

“Ricer!” Lenore said suddenly, moving the lever up and down.

“A ricer?” Julia said. “For ricing potatoes?”

“Yes!” Lenore said in triumph.

“Well, you won’t need that at Fallowfields. Meals are provided. Honestly, Mom, I’ve never seen you rice potatoes, and I’ve been around since 1969.”

The ricer went in the Fallowfields box. A small victory. Everything else was going. Lenore knew which boxes to look for. Julia had written “S.A.” on them in green Magic Marker — Salvation Army. Lenore pulled out a faded dusty thing, green and white, read the side: it was a “cooky” press made of “micro-alumilite — electro-hardened aluminum.” She pulled out her cheesecake-recipe book and her whatsit plates, which Julia said she had never used but which Lenore could remember using. When was it? It wasn’t that long ago. Trevor was there and her brother and June and their kids. What were their names? Faces she was very clear on. In a way, anyway — she could remember some faces. But her brother’s kids? They were just little then. The little ones. Before the one of them got big and killed himself. That was a disaster. On a motorcycle.

“When did you use the oyster plates?” Julia asked. Lenore looked at her, startled.

Lenore asked, “Who was it who died on the motorcycle?”

Julia said, “What?” That tone of voice.

“On the motorcycle,” she repeated.

“That was Tommy,” Julia said, boxing like a tornado. The blue china teacups and saucers. The English cutlery. The lace table flats. And all of her towels. Boxes and boxes of them. “Tommy died on the motorcycle,” Julia said. “It must have been twenty years ago. Did you use the oyster plates then?”

“What oyster plates?” Lenore asked.

She wandered into the living room. Everything down from the walls now. So dizzy. There were strange shadows around the spots. Julia had packed most of the pictures, but on the flat thing an old one was lying out. Lenore read the print near the bottom: “On the way home — off the track — Capt. Buzbie would like very much to know where they are.” Captain Buzbie with his fur hat, driving his sleigh. And what’s-her-name beside him. So pretty. Another beneath this one: “Capt. Buzbie drives Miss Muffin.” Lenore strained through her glasses to read the scratch on the back: “During WWI I was convalescing at Dieppe — in the Hotel Bretagne I saw these 2 old Canadian prints. After prolonged bargaining with the hotel owner, who thought they were paintings, I obtained them. I showed them to an expert in London who told me they were of a set of 6 and very very well worthwhile.” A shivering signature. Someone related to Trevor? Where did they get Capt. Buzbie?

On to the card drawer. Good thing Lenore was here. Just throw it out. That was Julia’s solution. What about the bridge pads? We They We They. Felt covers with old Chinamen. You never see those any more. And on the shelf, two of Daddy’s duck decoys, a red crystal pheasant, and a Chinese rooster. In the bottom of the drawer, almost hidden, was an old picture-paper. Lenore opened it to a peachy-cheek: “Checked undergrads: a dream of a team for intra-mural and extra-curricular activities. Sweet and neat checks in all wool.

“Mother!” Julia called from the other room and Lenore looked up, shocked. Julia marched in like a two-year-old. She was going to say something, going to announce it. But then just like that the breath went out of her like a mudbath, and then the weird little noise. The what am I going to do? noise.

Trevor had a saying for this sort of thing, Lenore thought. But, of course, he was never there when you needed him.



“I don’t see why there’s all this rush all of a sudden,” Lenore said bitterly in the new place. It smelled like that, a new place, all … smelly and such. Total confusion. First everything was going into boxes then there was such a mess and the boxes were going here and there and nothing was left in her house. What was she supposed to do with nothing left?

“We’re not rushing all of a sudden,” Julia said.

That jaw working up and down, and that strange look, as if Lenore had walked out of the change place without any clothes on in the middle of Pullman’s. She remembered Julia holding her leg up one aisle and down the next. Up and down! All for that toy. That talking whatever.

“Well, I was living just fine, thank you very much!” Lenore said. Boxes going here and there. The smell was wretched. This new place. Like living in a hotel. Corridors and stink and wretched, ugly carpets. And old people, everywhere, wrecks.

“The house has been sold,” Julia said, too tiptoe. She patted the bed, like it was, what? “Won’t it be great never to have to cook another meal?” Like a piece of copper. “You know how much you hated cooking. And there’ll be new people to meet …”

“Well, I’m not going to live here!” Lenore said. She stamped her foot and sat down hard on a box in the little space between her bed and her sofa in this silly thing they were trying to call her room. “I don’t see why there’s all this rush!” she said. Slowly, clearly, with no mistakes at all. “It’s all just … a rush!”

“We sold the house, Mom,” Julia said. Up and down. A little toy. Holding on to her leg like that, making such a scene. Lenore should never have given in. This is what happens. “The cleaners are finishing up, painters will be there tomorrow, and the new family moves in next week.”

“I’ve never heard such broken eggs! Why did no one consult me?”

“We did, Mom. We’ve been over this again and again. We sold the house – you remember that. I wish I could take care of you but it’s just becoming too difficult.” Julia was back to patting the bed again, as if soothing a pet. “We can’t give you the care that you need. Alex is in Calgary, he has his own life. And I have Matthew now; you know how demanding a baby is. I know you know that! You need people who can be here for you all the time. I’ll be here some of the time, of course I will. But you have to trust –”

Lenore got up, sat down on another box, got up, put her hands over her ears, sat down, then got up again. Nothing was right, nothing! And why? All because of a stupid mistake with onions. Well, she was sorry. She’d never do it again. Never. So let’s stop all this nonsense.

“Could you sit still, please?” Julia asked. Such a whiny little voice. About to cry. Well, let her. She wants to be a spoiled brat. Holding on to her leg. Up and down. Rotten behaviour. Trevor wanted pot roast for dinner, hated it being late.

A man came in then, a huge man. He startled Lenore so badly she lurched back and nearly toppled out of the window. What kind of place was this, they just leave it open so anyone could throw you out? They wanted the money. That was why. Lenore turned and the man was right there, lifting one of her boxes.

“Who’s that?” Lenore demanded. A huge man, grunting, a shaggy black bear with grey hair at the temples.

That look on Julia’s face again, as if horrors were upon them.

Well?” Lenore said.

“It’s Bob,” Julia said. “My husband. Your son-in-law. Bob!”

“Hi, Lenore,” the man said. “I know this is upsetting. How are you feeling?”

A huge man, sweating big. She’d never seen him before in her life. He lifted a box, moved it from here to there, then put it down.

“There’s still the dresser,” he said.

“That’s not Bob!” Lenore snorted. They were shifting everything when she knew it all before. Perfectly!

“Of course it’s Bob,” Julia said. “Just take a deep breath. Relax.”

“It isn’t Bob,” Lenore said softly. If Julia could be quiet, so could she. “I’m sorry about the onion. It wasn’t my fault!”

“Of course it’s Bob!” Julia said. “And what is all this about an onion?”

“This man is Bob?”

“Yes!” He was standing there like a labourer, sweating on the carpet.

“Well, what does he do?” Lenore asked.

“He’s a university professor,” Julia said. Talking for him. Because he wasn’t Bob.

Her little girl, that puffing-up face.

“I think you’re making this up,” Lenore said.

“Who gave us the gold-trimmed placemats with the rose patterns?” Julia asked.

Lenore laughed nervously. It was all a stupid, smelly dream. If she just waited it out then everything would be marigolds again.

“The gold-trimmed placemats,” Julia pressed. “You organized our wedding. You used to know exactly who gave each of our wedding presents. You can remember this.”

“The Houghtons.”

Yes!” Julia said, hugging her. “You see? It’s all in there still, you just have to access it!”

“Can I go home now?” Lenore asked.



There was one time, Lenore remembered – in a wispy way, for the most part, though it came in strong as nails sometimes – they were driving in a snowstorm. Trevor, of course, was at the wheel. Driving and smoking, his brow creased in concentration. Outside, snow – the blinding white against the black of night. There was a bridge party, with … with what’s-their-names. Who had the little boy who committed suicide. And that was before what’s-his-name – the man – went off with that young woman from his office. It was before all that. Trevor would have nothing to do with him after, and Babs – that was her name. Babs and Dougie. Babs fell apart. It was before all that. It was just bridge and everything was happy.

Except for the snow. Trevor smoking, worrying, peering out the windshield of their old car. It was new then. The wipers went whap! whap! furiously clearing the snow, but new blurriness always returned right away. Whap! Whap! Lenore could tell Trevor was getting a headache. The tires were spinning. The new car was clumsy in the snow. It was so heavy, the backside slid around.

“Why didn’t you put on the snow tires?” Lenore asked and Trevor gave her his King-of-the-Castle look. He was King-of-the-Castle anyway. He didn’t have to give her that look. Smoking and peering, the tires spinning, everything vague in black and white.

“For God’s sake!” Trevor said everything sharply. “I just wanted to play some bridge!”

This was what it was like in the new place. Lenore wandered around peering, but it felt like snow and gloom behind a windshield. I’m ready to go home now, she thought. Sitting on a box with the telephone on her lap. Sitting in her slip with a sweater on and the blackness pressed hard against the windows. She called up Julia and told her about the bridge, about the snowstorm with Babs and Dougie. Then Julia wasn’t there, it took the longest time to figure out – some problem with the phone. But nothing seemed quite right these days anyway. So Lenore punched in the numbers again. One after another. It was better if she didn’t think of them. That was the funny thing. As soon as she thought straight at the numbers they went away.

It rang and rang and rang. Then – Trevor! But she didn’t want to talk to him, not now. She asked him, very politely, if she could speak to Julia.

Who?” he said, but in an odd way.

“Why won’t you let me speak to her?” Lenore said. Then she added, “I am sorry about the onions. I won’t do it again!”

He hung up. Drunk! Lenore, punched the numbers again immediately. Just with her fingers. It rang and rang and rang again.

“Uhn-hn!” said a woman. Then, “Yes? Hello?”

“Julia?” Lenore said.

“No,” said the voice. Then louder: “NO. Wrong number! God, what time is it?”

“But that’s not possible,” Lenore said. She was trembling.

“There’s no Julia here. I’m sorry,” said the voice. But she didn’t go away. Lenore said, “Well, could you give me her number?”

Who is it you’re calling?”

“I told you. Julia!” Lenore said.

Nothing. The phone was working badly. Lenore tried again. “We’re not in right now,” a voice said. “But we’d like very much to respond to your call. So please leave a message after the tone.”

Lenore waited, then said, “Why won’t you talk to me? I want to go home! Why can’t you understand that? Has everybody gone nutmeg here?” Lenore cried for a bit, then talked some more, but no one replied.

As soon as she put down the receiver it rang, a huge jangle that made her leg jump. She snapped up the phone.

“Julia?” she cried.

Who have you been talking to?”

“Well,” Lenore said, “you’re not the only one in the world who has friends.”

Friends?” Julia said.

“Yes,” Lenore said, proudly. The box was starting to dig into her back. Why couldn’t they give her some decent furniture? “I’m meeting lots of new friends,” she said. “Lots and lots.” She added, “Ever so many!” but Julia couldn’t keep up her end. “Are you there?” Lenore asked finally.

Julia yawned and said sleepily, “Oh, I’m sorry! I had an itchy nose.”

“Well,” Lenore said, “that means you’re going to kiss a fool!”

“Does it?” Julia said absently. Then, “It’s time for bed, Mother. Time for sleep,” so gently, with so much tucked wool, it reminded Lenore of something, she could almost put her finger on it.

LOSING IT. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Cumyn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Alan Cumyn’s books include Man of Bone (1998), winner of the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award (as it was then known) and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in 1999; Burridge Unbound (2000), which won the Ottawa Book Award and was a finalist for The Giller Prize; Losing It (2001); and The Sojourn (2003). His children’s book The Secret Life of Owen Skye was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature (2002).

Alan Cumyn lives in Ottawa.

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Losing It 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the story of 3 people that are 'losing it'. One is 'losing it' unavoidably due to Alzeheimers, another because she is trying ever so hard to be responsible and the third is losing it because they chose to be irresponsible and throw caution to the wind. The author does a great job of giving you a clear picture of what it is like to walk in someone elses shoes. More often than not the shoes took me to a place I did not want to go. I did not find this book to be terribly humorous as the professional critics suggest. I agree that it is very dark and if one's sense of humor is tickled by identifying with a character's excruciatingly embarassing experiences then you might find it funny. I will say that this book has a similar feel to The Corrections--and I found it much more readable.