In Peter Cameron’s new novel, his eighth work of fiction, the narrator is a disaffected teenage product of divorced, self-involved, and privileged parents. He is thus so emblematic of a typical upper-middle-class experience today that there is from the outset the potential for clich?, suggesting that Cameron has set himself an admirably difficult task. James Sveck, a Manhattanite, smacks of an updated Holden Caulfield, believing as he does that nearly everyone is a fraud, apart from a young man who runs his mother’s art gallery and, touchingly, his grandmother. But Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You — a work unfairly categorized as “young adult” — is a keenly observed and elegantly drawn novel that skirts the problems typical of the post-Salinger teenage angst story.
Unlike the more assertive Holden, James responds to his near-constant alienation by attempting to stop associating with anyone. This puts the plot in some danger of stasis, since conversation and conflict are essential to drama in a book without a great deal of incident. Cameron cleverly avoids this pitfall by putting James in positions of required social interaction — a basic element of the human condition even for the intentional loner. His parents are concerned that he is unhappy — which he is, Cameron gradually and artfully reveals — and they speak to him, often in a disturbingly formal way for family members. And so he must talk back, and here witty nihilism can only get him so far because his relatives have, perhaps to his dismay, a natural effect on his emotional state. In these exchanges, James shows a fondness for language and for novels and other cultural products that is rooted in their ability to offer a refuge of control and a created world less disappointing than the real thing.
Therapy, which his parents arrange for him without much concern for his perspective on the matter, becomes another major source of forced dialogue for James. Told by his mother that his psychiatrist will be a woman named Rowena Adler, he raises an eyebrow, giving rise to this banter:
“What’s wrong with Rowena? It’s a perfectly fine name.”
“I suppose if you’re a character in a Wagnerian opera. But don’t you think it’s a tad Teutonic?”
In these funny yet quietly poignant lines, James exhibits both his somewhat obnoxious delight in his own wit and erudition, and also, more important, his tendency to avoid the real issue at hand, in this case his feelings about seeing a therapist.
Surprising no one, James puts up considerable resistance to sharing anything of consequence with Dr. Adler, preferring to parry her remarks, too, with a deflective facade of word games and comebacks. While James’s behavior is immature and condescending, the sessions also brilliantly present the irritating impassiveness available from doctors everywhere. These are among the most realistic and best therapy scenes I’ve encountered. James and Dr. Adler keep circling back to a pathetic, amusing stalemate, as she answers questions with questions, in that familiar way, and James plays defense in return, not wanting to repay such tactics with the openness she’s driving at: “I didn’t say anything. It just seemed pointless, like trying to have a conversation with a parrot or someone who’s been lobotomized.”
For a number of sessions they get nowhere, but eventually Dr. Adler, herself an agile maneuverer, manages to draw him out. At some length he tells of a disastrous trip to a conference in Washington, D.C., for smart and allegedly civic-minded students. Deprived of his precious solitude, he is driven up the wall and simply vanishes from a night of absurd dinner theater and, for days, from the conference, whose true pointlessness and banality provokes genuine empathy. He narrates this by turns to Dr. Adler and directly to the reader, and Cameron skillfully conveys through the similarity between the accounts and their tone that James is beginning to trust his interlocutor.
What James discusses with Dr. Adler only incidentally is that he’s gay. That seems odd, given that one would expect his parents to have told her of the suspicions they each air to him, getting typically evasive answers. But in fact his homosexuality is only slightly relevant to the story. This represents a commendable advance for “the gay novel,” which for a couple of decades was a home for dishy romans ? clef and tortured explications of the AIDS disaster — tortured in both senses — and the resulting gay experience, as if there were just one.
James’s sexual orientation briefly enters the picture in the form of a cruel trick he plays on John, a gallery manager he actually likes, in which he poses online as a perfect match and arranges a date. The ploy implies a certain believable self-loathing, since John is James’s only gay counterpart. When James shows up and tells all, John is understandably furious. James’s explanation to his therapist, echoed later to his grandmother, is that he “wanted to prove that I could be this other person. A person who would attract John.” It is not entirely convincing that James would consciously entertain this thought, nor that he would express it to Dr. Adler, no matter how much their relationship has evolved. (Until now she appears not to have known he is gay.) Moreover, if James’s portrayal of his motives is accurate, which it seems intended to be, it is too baldly stated, a rare lapse for Cameron into excessive explanation.
It is no surprise that James’s inner life appears to be related to his parents’ casual cruelty — they send him to a disciplinary summer camp because it’s too late to sign up for any other kind — but Cameron is too resourceful to reduce him to the outcome of some childhood equation. He’s a unique and breathing person, convincingly struggling with adolescence in our intimate view, and it is his characterization that elevates the novel out of the genre.
In a particularly personal and moving moment, James describes what that conference meant to him:
By Wednesday night — Entertainment Night! — I had sort of lost my grip on whatever sense of normalcy I had arrived with. I remember at one point (genuinely) wondering if I was, perhaps, genetically altered in some way, some tiny modification of DNA that separated me from the species in some slight but essential way, the way mules can mate with donkeys but not with horses (I think)….
It was a troubling thing to feel, and it made me sad. It made me cry in the men’s room of the Russell Senate Office Building. It made me not want to be alive.
A lot is happening in this passage, all of it impressive. We have the recognizably adolescent voice — “I had sort of lost my grip” — and the intelligence and humor of this particular adolescent. We have in addition a feeling of estrangement recognizable enough from art and life that again it boldly approaches clich?. And then, a in lovely turn set up and well earned by many pages of subtlety and sleight of hand, we have a simple, direct move into the exquisitely and sadly profound.