Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s second novel, was hailed upon its publication as demonstration of the continued existence of James Joyce. It combines the ridiculous and the sublime, the moral and the immoral, the sexual and the spiritual, the serious and the comic.

Cohen, a student of literature, calls to mind Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) as his novel probes the depths of hell and the journey toward heaven. Cohen’s scruffy pilgrims are reminiscent of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims as they so imperfectly travel toward a spiritual shrine. His is surely the Slough of Despond of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678); his characters are secular descendants of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). His tortuous humor recalls the apocalyptic humor of William Blake: As the heaven of Blake’s major prophesies makes readers laugh and, immediately, cry at their monstrous stupidities and aspirations, so does Cohen’s hell in Montreal make readers almost laugh and almost cry as it causes them to marvel at their monstrous journey.

The novel has obvious associations with Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; also known as Notes from the Underground) as the two narrators write literally from underground and from the cavernous depths of their despair. The narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) seems a spiritual brother to Cohen’s narrator. American Saul Bellow has with great good humor explored the ridiculous and the sublime in the low-keyed heroes of his novels, though Bellow’s heroes are much more appealingly presented than Cohen’s. Cohen’s contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth have had their fictional characters wallow and revel in their sexuality as Cohen’s narrators wallow and revel in theirs.

Though the novel was not initially successful, by 1998 some 800,000 copies of Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s second and last novel, had been sold. Its success has doubtless been spurred by the popularity of its author as a poet and, especially, as a singer and songwriter.