Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: Combat Camera, by A.J. Somerset

Attention holiday shoppers: if you’re looking for a great gift this year for the man on your list who may have given up hope on the contemporary novel, a man who has felt a little shut out of the Canadian literary conversation over the last few decades, a man who has been looking for a book that explores the surprisingly complex inner world of one of his tortured and taciturn brethren, then A.J. Somerset may have the perfect gift idea for you.

Somerset’s novel Combat Camera, winner of this past year’s Metcalf-Rooke Award, is as raw and rugged as Canadian books come. It tells the story of Lucas Zane, a former combat photojournalist burnt out after 20 years of covering some of the world’s most violent wars, who has been reduced to taking pictures for low-budget porn in Toronto. Despite the trauma and hopelessness that permeates his current situation, Zane soon finds himself roped into rescuing one of the set’s young starlets (who goes by the name Melissa) after a sex scene turns violent. The two flee on a road trip to Vancouver – a journey that forces them to confront the violence and failures of their respective lives as well as the complex relationship they have with each other.

Make no mistake – Combat Camera is not for the lighthearted, despite the infusions of pink on its cover. This novel is relentlessly masculine and offers an unflinching look at violence, sex and the inglorious torment of a traumatized person. I cannot think of a single character from Canadian literature quite like Lucas Zane – a man whose inner tumults are at such odds with the reserved, aloof persona he presents to the exterior world.

One of Somerset’s many gifts is the way he is able render Zane’s post-traumatic stress disorder in such a believable and uncontrived way. There are numerous examples of this. A simple visit to a supermarket turns disastrous for Zane when a broken egg on the aisle floor triggers the memory of a war victim shot through the head. Zane is forever haunted by his own near-death experiences (he often recalls a bullet zipping past his own head during particularly stressful moments) and by the death of a mysterious woman named “Christine” who constantly lays on the fringe of his memory. The narrative itself abets Zane’s discombobulated inner world by constantly switching from the past to the present and shifting effortlessly from the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. In lesser hands this would be jarring, but Somerset is able to use this back-and-forth technique to lend credibility to Zane’s unstable self.

Combat Camera is also interesting because it sometimes feels like it’s at war with itself – fighting hard not to give in to some obvious temptations. I’m not talking strictly about whether Zane and Melissa will give in to the troubled and complicated attraction that binds them together on their road trip across Canada. I’m speaking more of how hard the book works to eschew sentimentality at all costs. I often believe that sentimentalism, in very small and very controlled doses, can help open up the dimensions of a story – much the way a couple tablespoons of tap water can open up the flavours of a fine Scotch. Somerset would probably disagree with this take on sentimentality, and I reluctantly admit that his book is all the better because he does. Zane and Melissa never have a singular moment of catharsis between them, an instance of clear-cut pathos. Their relationship just sort of peters out, the way real relationships often do. When I finished the last page, I found myself oddly pleased that this was how the author chose to end things.

Combat Camera probably won’t get the kind of attention it deserves, but it deserves to be read and enjoyed by people looking for something a little different in a Canadian novel. It’s rough and raw and unapologetic. And, consequently, extremely refreshing.

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