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Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You

by Peter Cameron (2007; Picador, 2009)

When this book was handed to me, all I could do was wonder how I'd missed it. Regular readers know that I comb the Book Review with a gimlet eye week after week, and I don't like to think that my judgment shifts so greatly that what now promises to be an interesting read in 2009 was so unpromising two years ago that I don't recall reading about it. But, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the novel was treated as a Children's Book by the Book Review. Perhaps I ought to look at Children's Books every week, but there are many, many things that I ought to do first. And I'm told that the paperback edition, new this spring, is not being marketed as Young Adult fiction.

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as Young Adult fiction. There was kiddie lit, and then you came out, like a debutante, and read grown-up books. If you were interested in reading, you were already so unusual that no one would stand in the way of your reading almost anything. If my mother objected to any particular book that she saw me carrying around, I've forgotten all about it. That I was carrying books around at all was the problem, not the titles.

I was much like James Sveck, the hero of Peter Cameron's book. It was obvious to me that the people who actually ran things were hidden out of sight. Nobody, in the prosperous, self-enamored bedroom community where I grew up, was really serious about anything — except being irritating. The people nominally in charge of things were too laughably incompetent to be taken seriously. (I except Mr and Mrs Meeker, the vaporizingly glamorous couple who taught us how to dance, and who really ought to have been in the movies.) This is why I have never had a problem understanding the two-tiered system of governance in the ancien régime — and why I've never felt nostalgic about it, either.

Accordingly, I was difficult and disrespectful, and very unhappy. Adults who wanted to help me had no idea of the impossibility of the undertaking: the only thing that they could do to help me was to go away, forever. Now that I am sixty, and, for the most part, they have gone away, forever, I find the world a far more agreeable place. I say this fully aware of the fact that the city is crawling with thirty- and forty-somethings who won't be happy (understandably, I concede) until every last Boomer is dead.

It was fortunate, I think, that my mother was not interested in my happiness. From my mother I learned that there are people in this world who are very deeply opposed to my attaining happiness, not because they're mean but because my idea of happiness offends them. In that regard, I am unlike James. There doesn't seem to be anybody in James' life who doesn't want him to be happy, and it's for this reason that he flounders.

James has just graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York's closed-admission public schools for gifted kids, and he is slated to go to Brown in the fall. Because no one at home is trying to thwart his happiness, he does not want to escape to college: he sees only the drawbacks of higher education, which I'll get to in a minute. Far from wishing to beat a hasty withdrawal from the domestic front, James wants to recreate it, sort of, in the form of a handsome old Midwestern house. He would like to use the Brown tuition money to buy this house (having chosen one on the Internet), and then he would move into the house with a great many books. Reading these books would constitute his education. It's a very sensible plan, if you're bright and eighteen. James's family doesn't have much to say against it; they just think it would be better if he went to Brown. But they are so wet about it that you wonder if James will pull off his scheme and somehow find a patron to install him in his own personal arts-and-crafts library houselet. I'm not quite sure how Mr Cameron does it, but he makes this prospect look dreadful and horrifying, even though James, who is narrating the book, thinks just the reverse.

The principal problem with going to college is that James hates people his own age, probably because they are adolescents, and people his own age will be swarming at Brown. Teenagers are supposed to suffer all sorts of existential doubts about themselves; James, in contrast, experiences an existential conviction about others. Especially other adolescent males.

“What’s so bad about college students?”

“They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.”

“You’ve never met Huck Dupont.”

“I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.”

“What’s wrong with hockey?”

“Nothing,” I said, “if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopathic.”

I couldn't have put it better myself, but, believe me, I put it.

The action in Someday is spread out over two time frames. There is the present, which consists of a week at the end of July, 2003. Then there is the recent past, beginning with a class trip to Washington in April. The trip did not go well for James, and in fact it went so badly that he was pushed into therapy, and it is James's sessions with Dr Rowena Adler that the details of the trip emerge. James's narration presents Dr Adler as a nincompoop who simply repeats his statements in question form, but by hook and by crook the doctor maneuvers James into making explicit his terrible fear of growing up. After weeks of sessions, the shrink finally confronts James about his Washington meltdown. By now, James parries her questions with further questions, as if he were the doctor. But he’s not the doctor. At a crucial point, she gets a rise out of him.

“So you assumed I was arrested?” 

“I suppose I did.”

“Well, I wasn’t arrested. And the so-called trouble with the police wasn’t my fault. It was my parents’. They got the police involved. They filed a missing persons report. If they hadn’t done that, everything would have been fine. Or less bad.”

“Were you missing?”

I realized she had tricked me into talking about what had happened in Washington, and even though I felt okay about talking about it, I wanted to make it clear I was aware I had been tricked, so I didn’t answer.

We turn the page on the last of the therapy sessions to find James perpetrating Internet fraud. Mr Cameron's command of his craft becomes blazingly apparent on a second reading: having wrapped up an episode from James's past that, while full of comic moments, is not essentially funny, and certainly not traumatic, the writer launches his hero into the future with an outrageous and truly dangerous experiment. The miracle of Someday is that James's hoax is clearly a sign of emotional development. As James's fairy godmother puts it,

"You know," my grandmother said, after she had tasted her new drink and made a noise indicating that she approved of it, "I think it's rather a heartening story, what you told me. You acted stupidly and made a mess, but nevertheless I find it heartening."

"Why?" I asked.

"Why? Because you wanted something, and tried to get it. You acted. You acted stupidly, but you acted, and that's the important part. And people often act stupidly when it comes to love. I know I did." She paused for a moment, as if she was remembering something specific.

I was shocked. She had said "love," had mentioned love as if it was an element of the story. I thought for a moment that I had misheard her. I've never talked about being gay or straight or anything remotely connected to that with my grandmother. It was like she lived in this other world, the world of Hartsdale, the world of men who wouldn't even put gravy on their meat, a world where those things didn't exist. Did she think I loved John?

Here is where James and I differ the most. At eighteen, James is already struggling to find a lover. That wouldn't occur to me until I was quite a bit older. When I was eighteen, I was too busy looking for a short route to the Indies, a way to look normal without being normal, so that I could live on quietly in my version of that Midwestern house, suspended between adolescence and adulthood, barely more engaged with the world, in fact, than a child in the womb. (July 2009)

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