Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
by Peter Cameron
Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pp., $16.00
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 …