Strange Loops by Liz Harmer

With its alluring plot, characters, and style, Liz Harmer’s second novel, Strange Loops, seduces her reader, not simply in its sexual appeal, but more importantly in its psychological and emotional insights. We follow the intimacies and intricacies of her protagonist, Francine: her affairs in the past and present, her troubled relationship to her twin brother, Philip, her mother, Victoria, her marriage and motherhood.

​Harmer starts off with multiple epigraphs, intertextual loops mostly from French writers on the nature of love. Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse provides two epigraphs; the first, “it is as if desire were nothing but this hemorrhage…. a hunger not to be satisfied, a gaping love.” Francine hemorrhages in her two affairs, the first as a teenager with Pastor Howie who is almost twice her age. Her second affair inverts the age gap, as her gaping love loops with her student, Alexander, who is half her age. The struggles between her id and super-ego belong to an ego that is at once strong and fragile, steadfast and volatile. Optical illusion, moral compass, remorse and bliss fill her days.

​The second epigraph is from Jean-Luc Nancy’s Noli Me Tangere: “That [Mary Magdalene] is otherwise considered to be a woman of ill-repute” serves as a subtext for the religious background in the novel where Francine works on her doctoral dissertation about the mystery of Mary. Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop is the source of the third epigraph and title of the novel: “The little system contains the seeds of its own destruction!” Self-destructive Francine contains the seeds of her own demise, as she indulges in excessive and obsessive adultery. Hofstadter’s notion of strange loops appears in his earlier book, Gödel, Escher, Bach, an examination of the idiosyncrasies of mathematics, art, and music. Indeed, Harmer alludes to Escher’s etching in the course of her looping narrative illusions where up is down, and vice versa. Francine sows and reaps, while her psyche rages and hemorrhages.

​Commenting on the relationship between sister and brother, the narrator employs metaphors that turn the novel into a self-reflexive or self-consuming artefact: “Twindom made them a snake that swallows its own tail.” As a child, Francine had used Philip like a mirror: “They had become those infinite mirroring puzzles: in his eyes she could see herself reflecting; in that reflection were his eyes. Together they were a strange loop, trapped in an Escher drawing where you think the stairs will take you up, but you end up down.” Back-to-back mirrors that create infinite reflection and vertigo are known in French as mise en abyme, which forms yet another strange loop with Barthes’s second epigraph “s’abîmer / to be engulfed”: “Outburst of annihilation which affects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment.” Francine is engulfed as nymph and narcissist in her relationship to herself, her brother, and her lovers. Her serpentine loop swallows itself and consumes her twin. Escher’s etching, Drawing Hands, revolves around the strange loops of hand and pen, destruction and creativity, Harmer’s discourse writing itself, Francine’s hands drawing herself and her lovers into an endless abyss of discourse and intercourse.

“​Aside from the pacing of Harmer’s page-turning prose, there are hidden meanings which ground Francine’s blindness and insights, for she is a three-dimensional character fleshed out in spirit, psychology, and intellect.”

​The novel begins with “An Opening,” with “Francine, Present,” and the symbol of infinity and strange loop. The opening of the novel is also the opening of Francine to her body and experience.  The opening sentence is straightforward yet contains its own mystery of hidden meanings: “The key was still under the clay pot on the concrete front step, and that pot made an unpleasant scrape as Francine moved it.” As a poet, Harmer plays the hard “c” sounds of key, clay, and concrete against sibilants of still, stoop, and scrape to highlight permanence and change. The key that should remain hidden becomes exposed, the unpleasant scrape of experience unspools over the course of the novel. Francine’s furtive return to her parents’ empty cottage is filled with surreptitious obstacles: on the security pad, she keys in the six digits of her parents’ anniversary. “Two short beeps chimed, indicating disarmament.” Francine’s inner security system is also disarmed by the charm of her young lover who waits in the car, while she struggles with the door’s “tricky latch and its sticky lock” – counterparts of her own sexual encounters.

​The car in the dark of “An Opening” foreshadows the car at the end of “A Closing,” as Francine drives away from her family reunion at the same cottage, and sees them in her rear-view mirror. “Finally, finally, she thought, her soul might lift from her godawful body, her traitor of a body with its stupid heart, and after she slammed on the brakes too late, after she swerved in the wrong direction,” as an oncoming truck barrels in her direction. Belated braking and swerving in the wrong direction dog her life, as she joins the fates of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. Indeed, Madame Bovary serves as an epigraph for the intertextual loop of “A Closing”: “… so difficult is it to grasp the advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it.” Francine hemorrhages at the very end as her body goes to pieces, “A body, which was only blood and bone sorted into alleyways and room.” She wishes for God in her final moment of self-deception: “It was the last thing – my mind, my good mind – it was the last thing, she thought. Here it came, something terrible and new, and familiar to her as her own name.” Mind over mother, as Eros and Thanatos converge throughout Strange Loops.

​Aside from the pacing of Harmer’s page-turning prose, there are hidden meanings which ground Francine’s blindness and insights, for she is a three-dimensional character fleshed out in spirit, psychology, and intellect. Harmer’s time-stitching between past and present flows smoothly. “Francine, High School” reveals her precociousness when she encounters Pastor Howie: “This current between her and Pastor Howie was a sign, she thought then, just as all things were signs.” If everything is a sign, then she both recognizes and fails to recognize the nature of these signs because of the strange loops between signifiers that float and sink. “The Latin word religio, Francine knew, meant binding. And there was a Hebrew word for a woman whose husband refused a divorce: agunah, chained one.” Agunah derives from the Hebrew for anchor, and Francine is in a double bind and doubly hooked in her strange loops and relationships.

​At the novel’s end she considers the word scapegoat: “The English word came from a misreading of a Hebrew word, which was probably the name of a demon. But a scapegoat was a demon, she thought.” More demonized than demonic, Francine is possessed by a series of demons, from her double Philip (nicknamed Pip) to her lovers, Howie and Alexander. She is tormented by the strange loops of desire between her body and her mind, her lovers and her family, lust and domestic fidelity. The fiction of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, and Annie Ernaux enters the gardens and coffee shops of this novel. Anne Carson’s essay, Eros the Bittersweet, offers another epigraph: “Then the edge asserts itself.” Francine is edgy, erotic, and magnetic. It is hard to put down Francine and the novel she inhabits. Strange Loops is a tour de force that ropes the reader into the bittersweet perils of fantasy and desire, as it exceeds the limitations imposed by society. 

​LIZ HARMER’s first novel, The Amateurs, was a finalist for the Amazon First Novel Award. Her award-winning stories, essays, and poems have been published widely, and she has been a fellow at both the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Raised in Hamilton, Ontario, she now lives in Southern California.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Knopf Canada (Jan. 31 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0345811275
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0345811271

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.