(This review spoils a significant subplot in the story, so proceed with caution.)
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a beautiful title in search of a novel. Peter Cameron uses it as the jumping off point to tell the coming of age of an eighteen-year old named James Sveck.
The first few pages quickly illustrate James’s contrary and cynical nature, as well as his increasing alienation from his family and his privileged upbringing. He has acted out enough to warrant compulsory meetings with a psychiatrist, whom he stonewalls at every opportunity. He spends the last of his summer vacation before college working part-time at his mom’s art gallery. Slated to go to Brown University, he instead looks obsessively at real estate in the Midwest and plots his escape, all the while disdaining everybody in New York City, except for his grandmother and one of his mother’s employees.
I have a very contentious relationship with stories about the children of privileged New York families acting like utter snots. I like them in their trashiest incarnations, as illustrated by the distressing number of aggregate hours I’ve spent watching Gossip Girl. I know more gossipy information about Anderson Cooper (who is not a snot) and his Vanderbilt relatives (who were) than is frankly healthy. On a less morally dubious note, I also love Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Despite all that, however, I have found that the novels I’ve read so far that feature sophisticated yet brittle families leave me cold. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Nanny Diaries. I don’t find the muted oppressiveness compelling, and neither do I muster much sympathy for the often unlikeable audience surrogate railing against the machine. I like drama that surround fictional royalty with much stricter sense of decorum and repression, but I don’t know, it just doesn’t tickle me in this particular setting.
I found Peter Cameron’s novel particularly irksome because it echoes the Salinger novel in a way that insists upon itself. And while I don’t identify with him, Holden Caulfield at least came from a time and place that truly pressed upon human beings the absolute necessity of conformity and limited critical thinking. James Sveck lives in a world that has been traumatized by the World Trade Center attacks that has seemed to send them in a suspended state between false cheer and despair, but it simply did not strike me that his disdain of this world warrants the long list of callous or inconsiderate actions that he takes in the novel.
Yes, I know it’s ennui. Yes, I know it’s about the paralyzing effect of modernity on an otherwise sensitive soul. Blah, blah, blah.
In one of the books dominant character arcs, James confronts (or refuses to confront) the idea that he may be attracted to men. He has feelings for John, an older man who works at his mom’s gallery. James ends up stalking him online and finding out that the frequents a dating site for gay people. James then creates a false persona on the dating site and communicates with John this way, an impersonation that goes on for weeks. He then lets John in on the whole charade in a particularly unkind way.
The novel attempts to contextualize the objectionable parts of James’s personality through his conversations with the resented therapist, as well as his deep love and loyalty to his grandmother. But while the scenes with the therapist leads to some insight about several of his traumas, the combative and painstaking way these often incomplete revelations were coaxed from him would leave me emotionally drained and frustrated as well. By the end of one session we find out that he essentially catfished the one guy he actually liked because he felt repressed about his sexuality and because… September 11? What?
The sequences at the end are particularly Caulfieldian in its ambiguity. He has several conversations with people that end up causing him emotional turmoil. There is a another significant trauma that happens, making the reader unsure if James would ever be able to pull himself through it. But for me, this final appeal to pathos comes at the end of a very vexing reading experience and left me not really caring what happens either way.
This is the challenge of all unlikeable narrator, to induce an initial, provoked alienation between you and the novel. The writer then spends the rest of books’ pages trying to win you back in some way. This novel left me cold from the start, and I could never find it in me to warm up to young master James.
I also have to admit that a large part of my dislike is that I reaaaally love the Ovid quote where the title came from and believe that this book didn’t deserve it. It was the reason I blind-bought this book in the first place. Petty in the extreme, I know.