Saturday, October 1, 2011

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron

No one uses language the way Peter Cameron does. The precision of every word is a luxury not often experienced in modern literature. In this book, the juxtaposition of perfect grammar and an astute vocabulary emanating from the mouth of a disaffected eighteen year old boy is, well, affecting. What is most interesting is the subtle way this character's diction changes over the course of the novel. As he begins to accept his unhappiness and descend, slowly, from his aerie of isolation, his use of language loosens up ever so slightly. By the end he is far from slinging around slang, but he sounds more like a resident of the 21st century than the 19th.

This is one of those books that almost makes me wish I'd grown up in New York City. There is something about that experience that is hard to fully imagine, as opposed, say, to growing up on a farm in Appalachia. This is also foreign to me, but it's somehow easier for me to mentally put myself there. A childhood in Manhattan will forever be something I don't want, but want to know.

As for what happens in this book: James is eighteen, spending the summer before his freshman year (he's going to Brown) working at his mother's art gallery. His mother is recovering from her day-long third marriage. His father is preparing for his first bout of cosmetic surgery. His sister, who attends Barnard, is having an affair with a married professor of linguistics. His therapist is dedicated to making him initiate their conversations. His only friend, John, is trolling online for men when the gallery is empty, which is most of the time. This is the backdrop of James' life, a collection of extremely intelligent, outwardly successful urbanites, none of whom seem particularly happy.

The one bright spot in James' life is his grandmother, keeping her house in the affluent suburbs spotless as she embodies a more graceful era. She may provide the impetus for her grandson's lone hobby: endless online searches for beautiful, inexpensive houses in the Midwest.

There isn't a lot of action in this book. There are a couple of seminal events, one told in flashback, and there is a lot of self-examination. All of which is engrossing, because it is so well-written, and the main character is endlessly sympathetic and charming. Even when he's being kind of a self-absorbed smart alec. I liked this book almost as much as I liked The City of Your Final Destination, which I recommend with stars in my eyes. And clearly Peter Cameron should win some sort of literary prize for the best titles.

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