Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2007) by Peter Cameron
Back Jacket: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is the story of James Sveck, a sophisticated, vulnerable young man with a deep appreciation for the world and no idea how to live in it. James is eighteen, the child of divorced parents living in Manhattan. Articulate, sensitive, and cynical, he rejects all of the assumptions that govern the adult world around him--including the expectation that he will go to college in the fall. He would prefer to move to an old house in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You takes place over a few broiling days in the summer of 2003 as James confides in his sympathetic grandmother, stymies his canny therapist, deplores his pretentious sister, and devises a fake online identity in order to pursue his crush on a much older coworker. Nothing turns out how he'd expected.
Review: I was originally drawn to this book because of the simple cover and, of course, the title. This is one of those titles that, incredibly, gives you a sense of what the entire book will be like. I know people say this all the time about books, and it's almost never true, but this book really is like Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caulfield were working at his mother's art gallery in the 21st century. I always angst over writing reviews for books that I find moving or meaningful, because I feel as though I cannot possibly cover everything that deserves to be touched upon and do it justice. So sometimes short and simple is best.
The back jacket synopsis describes James Sveck really well, capturing the most evident qualities of his complex character. My favorite kinds of books are character driven, so while there are "events" throughout the novel, they are the type of everyday events that may seem insignificant, or are simply the consequences of a character being who they are. The voice in this book is incredible, and you really get the sense of James' surface disdain for things like stupid questions, small talk, and other social conventions; but you also get a sense of his vulnerability and, of course, pain. For example, when he takes the family dog Miro for a walk:
The dog run is this area of the park that is completely fenced, and once you pass through the two gates, which upon penalty of death must never be simultaneously opened, you can let your dog off the leash and let it frolic with its own kind. When I arrived at about four o'clock, it was fairly empty. The people who didn't have real jobs who frequented the dog run during the day had left, and the people who had real jobs hadn't yet arrived....There is a sense of camaraderie in the dog run that I hate. This sort of smug friendliness dog owners share that they feel entitles them to interact. If I was sitting on a bench in the park proper, no one would approach me, but in the dog run it's as if you are on some distant weirdly friendly planet. "Oh, is that a standard poodle?" people will ask, or "Is it a he or a she?" or some other idiotic question. Fortunately the dog walkers, professionals that they are, only talk to one another, in the same way I have noticed that nannies and mothers never interact in the playground: each, like the dog walkers and dog owners, sticks to its kind. And so Miro and I were left alone.And later, when he's in a session with a therapist that his parents wanted him to meet with. James has just said that he feels like he could have their conversation by himself at home and Dr. Adler asks if he doubts the sessions will help him:
I looked around her office. I know it sounds terrible, but I was discouraged by the ordinariness, the expectedness, of it. It was as if there was a catalog for therapists to order a complete office from: furniture, carpet, wall hangings, even the ficus tree seemed depressingly generic. Like one of those little paper pellets you put in water that puffs up and turns into a lotus blossom. This was like a puffed-up shrink's office.
"How should I know if this will help me? It's like asking someone who's swimming the English Channel if they will get across. There's no way they know."
"Yes, but they can believe they can swim across. Otherwise why would they set out? You wouldn't begin to swim across the Channel if you were sure you couldn't make it."
"You might," I said.
"Would you? Why?"
"I can't believe we're talking about people swimming across the English Channel."
"It was an analogy that you made."
"I know. I just don't think it deserves this kind of scrutiny."
She sort of squinted for a moment, and then said, "Why do you think you used that analogy?"
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said.
"Well, think about it," she said. "Why the English Channel?"
"Because I see not feeling sad as a sort of Herculean task."
"Yes, but any number of tasks might be considered Herculean. In fact, Hercules performed seven tasks. Why do you think you chose swimming the English Channel?"
I was fairly certain that Hercules performed more than seven tasks (I checked later and I was right: it was twelve), but I decided to let that pass.
Cameron does a superb job with the natural cadences, word choice, and phrasing of each character's dialogue. It really feels natural to me, like you are eavesdropping on real conversations more than reading a book.
Conclusion: I give this 5/5 because, while I was in some ways unsettled by it when I read it, it was in a good way. It's one of those books I like to sit with for a bit, and often it's when I'm thinking about it afterward that I realize how truly fantastic it was. This is a hopeful book, and timidly optimistic if not particularly feel-good. But most of all it is funny, poignant, and heart-achingly familiar.