A Review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007
By REBECCA, June 22, 2012
James Sveck: smart, sensitive James hates people his own age, dog parks, and “dead, meaningless language” like nice to meet you, too
James’ mom: thrice married, she owns an art gallery and is very particular about things
James’ dad: into keeping up appearances, he wants to be supportive but just ends up pissing James off
James’ grandmother: One of the few people James likes, she encourages him to think about lunch instead of woes
John: a co-worker at the gallery and James’ first crush
Dr. Adler: James’ therapist (mandated after a slowly-revealed incident), she is very therapist-y
It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a professor named Rainer Maria, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order pasta as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.
I cannot overstate how brilliant the voice of this book is! James Sveck’s (I love that name) voice is awesome, yes, but Peter Cameron’s tone throughout the book is hilarious, smart, and deliciously pathos-soaked. The tone borders on satire, but this is an effect of seeing the world through James’ eyes, I think. James is a very sweet, intelligent guy who would likely be considered to over-analyze the world. Rather, I think, James simply does not take it as a given that things that are important simply because of their established value; instead, he tries to figure out what he really wants, what he thinks is really important. He does not, for example, have any interest in going to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn more by reading on his own; he doesn’t see any reason to come out to his family as gay because it’s not like anyone comes out as being heterosexual.
My inclination here is to quote you huge sections of the hilario-genius of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to convince you of its amazingness . . . but I’ll just give you medium-sized chunks, instead. In this scene, James’ sister has decided to begin pronouncing her name with a hard-g sound and their mother has returned from her honeymoon sans husband:
“‘Gillian!’ my mother said. ‘Please.’
‘It’s Gillian,’ said Gillian.
‘What?’ my mother asked.
‘My name is Gillian,’ said Gillian. ‘My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.’
‘Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.’ My mother looked at me. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why aren’t you at the gallery?’
‘John didn’t need me today,’ I said.
‘That is not the point,’ said my mother. ‘John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about. . . . Please remove that plate,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten’” (8-9).
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a character piece, and James’ thoughts and observations make up the meat of the story. But Cameron is amazingly deft at sketching even the minor characters, so the atmospheres of the Manhattan art scene, James’ father’s office building, James’ therapist’s waiting room, and an ill-fated class trip to D.C. are totally realized.
In the partner’s dining hall of Jame’s father’s office (after James’ dad instructs him that pasta is not a manly option), James informs his father:
“‘I can’t bear the idea of spending four years in close proximity with college students. I dread it.’
‘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 psychopaths.’
‘Well forget Huck Dupont. He’s going to Dartmouth. You’re going to Brown. I doubt they even have a hockey team’” (34).
It’s not all fun and semantics, though. James behaves badly on the Gent4Gent dating site, and has to go to the therapy mandated after the terrible D.C. incident, which is interspersed in flashbacks. All in all, I really have nothing but good things to say about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: Cameron is a hell of a writer; the story is engaging and moving; the characters are funny, ridiculous, clueless, and sad. It’s a perfect slice of a teenager’s life, and James Sveck is a character that I think about often—indeed, he feels so real to me that I can imagine more and more books that follow him as he gets older. Probably (at least a little bit) because . . .
. . . It is truly uncanny how much the landscape of James’ mind resembles my own at certain moments in this book: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you’” (87). I almost feel that by recommending it I’m saying, here, read about me!, which seems super self-involved. Mostly, though, I was just really delighted to read a character whose thought processes and obsessions kind of a little bit seemed familiar, if at times neurotic. I don’t remember what made me pick the book up. I had read a few other of Cameron’s novels, but didn’t remember that at the moment. Probably I just liked the title, and I was doing this summer program in Ithaca and I didn’t know anyone yet, so obviously I was hanging out at the library and Barnes and Noble.
I went back to the room I was subletting, which had no air conditioning and was right off both the kitchen and the laundry nook (translation: the fires of hell could not burn hotter), and started reading, and I did not put the book down until I had laughed and cried my way through the whole thing. My room also had a door opening into the bathroom, so whenever one of the other people who shared the house came down to use the bathroom I would muffle my laughter/tears so they couldn’t hear me. This is a major reason that I live alone. Anyhoosier, that was the same summer that I read The Hunger Games, and James Sveck absolutely held his own alongside Katniss in my memory.
When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (2007). The writing team of Timothy James Beck (2 Timothys, a James, and—you guessed it—a Becky) have a series called Manhattan, which comprises a loosely-connected set of characters, and this is the fourth in the series, but it can totally be read as a stand-alone. 19-year-old Nick Dunhill left his parents and twin bro in the Midwest to come live with his uncle in NYC, where he struggles to get by and get over being a little traumatized in the wake of a 9/11-related subway incident. When You Don’t See Me tracks Nick through multiple jobs and friendships, as he learns what (and who) he wants, and figures a boatload of stuff out in the process.
The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (2010). The Freak Observer is more brutal than Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, but Loa, like James, is a merciless observer and truth-teller about the people she meets and the things she experiences. A totally gorgeous book with a truly unique protag + bonus points for best cover ever. Read Tessa’s review here.
Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). Noah and his mom start to renovate a dilapidated house after Noah’s father dies suddenly, and Noah falls in love with the boy next door while his mother slowly loses it in the background. Noah is smart and snarky, and I feel like if he and James met in real life they would either fall in love instantly or decide that they hated each other before falling in love later. You can read my full review here.
procured from: bought in Ithaca