Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
Reviewed by Lorrie Moore
New York Review of Books
Peter Cameron is an urban novelist with an interest in the angle and viscosity of sunlight. He is an observer of greenery -- "it was impossible to walk along that gravel path by the sea and not think palm frond shadow" -- and the strength and direction of a current in a river or a stream:
The sun was low in the sky and refracted in the window. He could see his own reflection, and through that, flickering in the glass, the reflection of what was ahead... coming back to the city is always nicer, in a way, because you travel in the same direction as the river.
His remarking of the natural world, as it intersects with the man-made, is not just a seeking of ironies and metaphors, though often it is also that. An observation such as "the reflection of what was ahead" is lovely in its linguistic play. But more often Cameron's recitation of the physical world seems like a reminder of earthly sparkle and grit he forces upon himself. Human habitation of the planet, and its great pleasantnesses, is something he is interested in being grateful for without writing a novel that would express, wholeheartedly, that gratitude. There is then the strange generosity of his at least trying -- of here and there defying the melancholy and ontological quibbling (his own) that impedes the enterprise. "She felt like she wanted to pray but it went no further than that." The contemporary loss of a spiritual language is the haunting subtext of almost all that he has written.
In fact, Cameron writes with a sort of perfection of restraint that can sometimes make a first-time reader afraid that the narrative may be too superficial or too precious or too English for ostensibly robust American reading tastes -- according to interviews, the writers he most admires are the British novelists Barbara Pym, Penelope Mortimer, and Rose Macaulay, whose work has made brief appearances in his own. His main characters tend to be people who are in some fashion running away, so that the settings of his novels are often not where the protagonist ordinarily lives at all but a place he is observing, tentatively, for the first time.
As a result, although his writerly predilection, as with many novelists of manners, is for long scenes of tart conversation, the narrative often proceeds with a gingerly sort of emphasis on material objects. A pitcher of amber beer, rather than any of the people in the room, is what is most likely to seem "blessedly lit from within." "Luxury hotels are the real houses of God," says a character in Cameron's 1997 novel, Andorra. A mood of exile and foreignness is thus underscored (and later, climactically, dramatized). It is the civilized world Cameron ends up honoring, even in all its disarray (though his pen is repeatedly drawn to tidy still lifes of every sort). The natural world carefully steps back, like a sensitive suitor who knows he's been toyed with. "You would get nowhere," thinks one Cameron character, "if you were never led on."
Peter Cameron began as a short story writer. Throughout the 1980s his stories appeared with some regularity in the New Yorker, where they were exemplary of a certain spare and elegant minimalism then associated with that magazine. Soon he was writing a serial novel for the short-lived periodical 7 Days (these chapters were later published as Leap Year, 1990), and after that, despite two story collections, he became primarily a novelist, his most admired books being The Weekend (1994) and Andorra. The latter, set in the tiny principality of that name tucked in the Pyrenees between Spain and France (and given a seacoast and a marina the real Andorra does not have), is something of a murder mystery, and proceeds with a Mr. Ripley–style narrator less talented than Patricia Highsmith's but more interestingly contemplative, even if we recognize his debts and in advance suspect his charms.
The Weekend, with its elegiac pun on "weakened," touches on the subject of illness and grief in the gay community but is simultaneously a kind of romantic frolic over a single long night, a Midsummer Night's Dream in upstate New York. In the book's title Cameron slyly puts forward what turns out to be that novel's most haunting metaphor: What idea better sums up life's brief strain at happiness (jammed between two eternities) than the idea of the weekend? Cameron has fashioned a living trope that sustains the entire book: life is a weekend, a hinge that joins the long nothing before and the longer nothing that follows. Between the bookending emptinesses sits existence, which in Cam- eron's world consists of loving, dying, and visiting. There is also usually some alfresco dining, a dabbling painter or two, and, alas, croquet.
If Cameron's focus seems a bit too trained on privileged travel, grand houses, slight and decorative employment, artistic wannabes, and effortlessly eccentric socialites, as if every society he examines were an indolent one of nineteenth-century dilettantes -- "back when the world had a certain elegant order" says one character, oblivious to whole portions of history -- or if his fictional world resembles perhaps a twentieth-century artists' colony, well, all of Cameron's books were written in part at Yaddo or MacDowell. A large house filled to the rafters with lonely creative types seems to be a kind of muse for him. Sometimes his characters quite literally live and work in turrets and attics. His novels have thus far featured -- to name only a few -- a rich murderer writing his memoirs; a closeted gay man at work on an opera based on Gide's The Immoralist; and several visual artists, the most recent being one who decoupages garbage cans with the pages of the Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud. (Cameron arranges to have this last reviewed in Artforum under the title "When Is Garbage Just Garbage? When It Stinks.") "I'm going to write a book about a perfect country where it's always the nineteenth century" says a character in The Weekend. And although his main characters are full of doubt and yearning and intelligent observation, they also may be surrounded by fatuous Lillet-drinkers who make such speeches as this:
Poor them! I'm afraid Ibiza is ruined. Although I haven't been there in years. Perhaps it's been unruined. That can happen to places, but it takes a while. You see, a place is found, then it's lovely for a while, and then it's ruined, and then if you're lucky it's forgotten, and if it hasn't become too, too ruined, it can start again -- unruin itself. It's what's going to happen to the planet eventually, I'm sure. It's only natural and we shouldn't resist it. We'll ruin it with concrete and garbage and hairspray and blow ourselves up, and it will all lie fallow for a millennium or two, and then it will start all over again, the fish crawling out of the sea and eventually painting the Sistine Chapel. Mark my words.
It is all bleakly amusing, and Cameron has a light hand: he lets his characters satirize themselves. In his last novel, The City of Your Final Destination (2002), travel to a half-real country, psychic claustrophobia, large, old-world houses, and dubious creative and intellectual projects persist -- though this time the story includes the world of literary scholarship and mines it for its spinning moral compasses and thwarted and futile figures. A University of Kansas graduate student named Omar travels to Uruguay to seek authorization for a biography of a dead writer, and spends the rest of the novel among the dead author's literary executors. He is not in Kansas anymore. But the ivory tower looks like harsh reality -- dusty Kansas indeed -- compared to the lives lived by this reclusive expatriated group. They -- not unlike many of Cameron's characters -- speak if not like actual munchkins, then like fey, childlike residents of some wonderland or other:
"Iran, Canada, Kansas -- where is your home?" asked Caroline.
"I don't really know," said Omar. "Kansas now, I suppose."
"You will stay in Kansas?" asked Caroline.
"It's difficult to get a job teaching college," said Omar. "If they offer me one, I suppose I will stay there. Or go wherever I can find a job."
"That seems a bit strange to me: to allow a job to decide where one lives. Surely you are not so cowed by reality as that?"
"I'm afraid I am very cowed by reality," said Omar.
"Oh," said Caroline. "Why is that?"
But in Cameron's newest novel, deliciously vital right from the start, and as inviting if less cozy than his previous ones, no one speaks like a mesmerizing airhead from another era. Though the characters are for the most part younger than in his other novels, they seem not just smarter and less desiccated but wiser and more worldly. And the genial hum of his previous narratives has been replaced by an articulate if paralyzed cry, which is occasionally ratcheted up to a scream. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You features the ways and current crises of a Manhattan family (dismantled and demented in recognizable fashion by divorce). The first sentence alone tells you how succinctly Cameron can get to the maddened heart of the matter, the voice, the milieu: "The day my sister, Gillian, decided to pronounce her name with a hard G was, coincidentally, the same day my mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon." Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is a piece of vocal virtuosity and possibly Cameron's best book: it retains the lucid and unlabored prose of his previous ones but wastes less time; it may be his most successful novel on its own terms -- terms that are not as modest as they may initially seem.
That in many ways this novel contains the least childlike characters he has ever created makes it especially unfortunate that the publisher has already been labeling it a young adult novel. The narrator is a smart-talking eighteen-year-old named James Sveck, who shares a bit of Holden Caulfield's snarky dismay. But he also has in common with the narrator of Andorra a love of smooth Roman stone and a prickly, pedantic relationship to human utterance. What Peter Cameron has done is written a sophisticated and adult book, although with fewer trellises and champagne flutes and tablecloths than in his previous books and less notice of architectural features such as newels and cornices. People speak less formally to one another, and more confrontationally, and use contractions. No one is likely to say they've slept "marvelously" the night before. They are more likely not to have slept at all:
"I can't believe you didn't notice I was missing," I said.
"Get a life, James," said Gillian....
"I just thought someone might notice that I never came home."
"Oh, we would, eventually," said my mother. "You just have to stay away a bit longer next time."
In addition to bracingly comic dialogue, the novel possesses too much emotional complexity and artfulness of construction to exclude adult readers -- for instance, the desire of a young man simply to be seen, let alone seen for what he is, is given several plot strands: two different instances of running away, and one elaborate instance of posing as someone else (in a computer chatroom), all to win notice.
Similar assessments, of course, can be made of Great Expectations, as well as the most famous of American boy narrators, Huckleberry Finn. And then there is The Catcher in the Rye itself, and although one would hesitate to place Cameron's novel in all this immortal company, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You will very likely elicit comparisons both to those great books and to more recent ones by, say, Jonathan Safran Foer or Benjamin Kunkel.
James's best friend is not a fellow teenager but his grandmother in New Jersey who refers to herself as "the poor man's Kitty Carlisle Hart." His father works in a high-security midtown skyscraper, has a Diebenkorn in his sun-filled office, and is about to have some cosmetic surgery on his eyes. As a kind of preemptive strike or out of idle and insensitive curiosity, he asks James if he is gay. James's mother, a thrice-married art dealer whose latest husband has absconded with her credit cards, and whose assistant is gay, also asks James if he is gay. James's sister, dating a language theory professor named Rainer Maria Schultz, is the only one in the family who doesn't ask. She is described by the flap copy as "his mordant older sister," but this is not her story. James's longest discussions are with his mother and his therapist, whom the flap copy refers to as "Teutonic." Cameron's prose, however, takes us out of labels and types of every kind:
"Well, you don't think it's weird?" Gillian asked Rainer Maria. "An eighteen-year-old boy who visits his grandmother?"
"No," said Rainer Maria. "You Americans have so little family feeling. In Germany...we love our grandparents."
"I'm not saying you shouldn't love them," said Gillian. "I just think visiting them is weird. It will be so good for you to go away to school, James...."
"I've decided I'm not going to college," I said.
"What? Since when?"
"Today.... I'm thinking about moving to the Midwest."
"The Midwest? The Midwest of what?"
"The United States," I said. "The prairie states."
"The prairie states? I think you've read My Ántonia one too many times."
"Hush, Gillian. I think this is a very good plan for you, James," said Rainer Maria. "The college experience in the United States is a farce."
"Hello!" said Gillian. "You teach in a college."
"My dear Gillian, if everyone had to believe in the work he did, not much would get done in the world," said Rainer Maria.
James quite candidly does not care for people his own age, or so he says, or perhaps this is a convenience, as Cameron has always been more interested in the grown-up world, especially young adults and very old ones, even if they are childlike in their conduct. The social canvas and range of dramatic action here may seem deceptively narrow -- a high school senior who lives with his mother and sister visits his father, grandmother, and therapist, recalls a brief misadventure at an academic teen conference in Washington, D.C., called "The American Classroom," makes a mess of a crush he has on his mother's assistant. But this apparent quietness is not atypical for Cameron, nor is a narrative strategy in which we are privy to the subdued wit of even the angriest and most unhappy people:
For a moment I could tell my mother didn't get what I meant, and then she got it. She looked at me with a sort of hurt, amazed expression. "You think I'm a tyrant?"
"I think you have tendencies toward tyranny," I said.
Neither young adult literature, nor even really a coming-of-age story, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is most surprisingly of all the subtlest September 11 novel yet written (if one can speak of the September 11 novel as a genre, and I think, with respect, that one can). So accomplished is its subtlety that one is not even aware of this novel's true subject until three quarters of the way through, and then its mention -- "You know we've never talked about September 11" -- a remark made rather late in the day by James's therapist, rises up out of the story's barely submerged anxiety (it is perhaps initially, casually planted there by James's ominous visit to his father's high-in-the-clouds office) and casts on the book a sudden, brilliant light. James has been wanting to skip college and use his tuition money to buy a house in the Midwest -- now we see why: two years before, he had been in tenth grade, at Stuyvesant High School, within close view of the World Trade Center when it was attacked. "I'm thinking about the woman who died on September 11 who no one knew was missing," James says to his therapist and then continues to himself:
...To die like that, to disappear without a trace, to sink without disturbing the surface of the water, not even a telltale bubble rising to the surface, like sneaking out of a party so no one notices you're gone.
Disappearance of every sort has become James's fearful fascination. A child's sense of safety in the world has been catastrophically undermined, and although this is a novel full of precise, skeptical observations about everything from art galleries to divorce to looking for love in New York City, its real subject is what happens to children when they witness terrible violence. How is such an event moved on from? Who do these children become when they are grown, and what faith is no longer possible for them as they continue to live in an anarchic world that still somehow brims with pleasure, beauty, and love? James's response lies in a kind of repudiation of death. Memories will be stored in things. Perhaps, he imagines, "love could naturally result in clairvoyance." The possessions of a beloved might lend their holy voodoo. When his grandmother leaves him her "ghostly remnants" -- all her possessions -- his parents want him to sell them to an estate liquidator:
That's the word they use: liquidate. But I refused. With some of the money my grandmother left me, I'm paying to have everything stored in a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City.
As in all of Cameron's work the past is both longed for and swept away. James's climate-controlled warehouse is his own sort of church with its own congregation, a shakily stubborn protest against time, change, and disappearance. It is a bravura performance, and Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is a stunning little book, a demonstration that adolescence, like a weekend, or the countries of Andorra or Uruguay, may seem an awkward, otherworldly way station suspended between two more prominent and fixed points (France and Spain, Brazil and Argentina, the long numb workaday weeks that may appear to represent an absence from living). Yet it remains a fundamental place in the human psyche from which no one ever really moves on:
I was beginning to realize that the adult world was as nonsensically brutal and socially perilous as the kingdom of childhood.
Poised between childhood and adulthood, adolescence stands there for a short vivid time howling like a dog. Eventually, it is simply buried. But buried alive.
Lorrie Moore teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her most recent book is the story collection Birds of America. She has won the Rea Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction.
Books mentioned in this post