A review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
by Peter Cameron
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 
2007, ISBN 978-374-30989-3, $16.00, 240 pages

Many contemporary authors set themselves the problem of dealing with alienated protagonists. Total alienation would be difficult to describe although Beckett certainly came close. Cameron’s young James Sveck also comes close, but he has ties to his friend and co-worker John and to his grandmother. These in the end will divert him from an apparent destiny of isolation and sadness.

One can tell that James is a survivor simply because he is the narrator. As a general literary rule, a protagonist-narrator will always come out ahead in the end. This narrative strategy has merits but preservation of at least one major suspense element is not one of them. And James is witty. Nothing really awful can happen to a protagonist-narrator who is witty.

At eighteen he is withdrawn and friendless, a source of concern to his parents (divorced) and his older sister Gillian. In his immediate past is an especially disturbing event: he ran away from a special student group in Washington, D.C. – described in the terms of nightmare altogether fitting to a ridiculous and artificial outing of this sort – and lived by himself for two days. At the National Gallery he had an emotional breakdown which culminated in his kicking a hole in a wall.

He decides not to go on to college and has a fantasy about leaving New York City and buying a house in the Midwest. Here he will lead the life of a hermit and read books. The story is set in the summer between high school and college and he works for his mother at her art gallery along with an older man, John. The mother is a ridiculous figure and full of pretensions and faddish notions. His father is not much better. Both go through the motions of being parents, hampered as they are by conventional prejudices and ignorance. Since a responsibility denied does not disappear, James finds himself in the care of Dr Rowena Adler, a psychiatrist.

His relationship with her is as disturbing for her as it is for him and much of the book describes the unraveling of her professional impersonal treatment of her patient. At the last they become almost conspirators in the consideration of James’s messed up life.

At the same time he finds that his co-worker John is gay and seeks a partner through the Internet. Guided by confused motives, James responds to John’s message with one of his own. For the purpose he creates a fictional person. When John discovers the deception he is angry and hurt and James feels the full weight of his misdeed. Of those about him only his grandmother is able to steer him aright.

The fulcrum of the book concerns James’s own sexuality. He acknowledges to himself that he is gay but cannot imagine the circumstances under which this could have any relevance. Cameron gives no neat finishing touches to James’s situation and the book gains in reality from this very fact. In some ways it is like a very interesting first installment to a longer story. Although this disappoints one’s conventional longings for a neat fictional package, it is on more sophisticated grounds eminently satisfactory. This, the eighth book by Cameron, is an accomplishment that provides an irresistible blend of the moving and the witty.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places