Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water….
Reading Combat Camera, A.J. Somerset’s brave and gritty debut novel, one discerns here and there evidence of influence from Nathanael West’s classic Miss Lonelyhearts: the disillusioned and powerless protagonist trapped in a job that threatens to destroy his soul; the amoral boss given to endless philosophical pontificating; the vivid depictions of the squalor and desperation of the lost and disowned. For West, all that squalor was easily found in America during the Depression. In Combat Camera, the sordid setting is the realm of hardcore internet porn. Any influence from Nathanael West, however minimal it may actually be, is of course a good thing, but unlike the great American satirist, Somerset offers his protagonist something Miss Lonelyhearts never gets: a viable opportunity for redemption, a possible second chance. West was never so cruel.
Turns out I’m a big meanie. You can read the rest at Encore Literary Magazine.
Stan C. Reade Photo here in London has gone out of business. I spent many hours there, and many dollars also. But the film business isn’t what it used to be, people buy their cameras at Future Shop, and e-Bay killed the used market and its economics of scarcity.
Let me say to Progress the same words with which I intend to greet the Apocalypse: fuck you, and the horses you rode in on.
Rows of lenses beneath the glass top of a display cabinet: a couple of well-used 50/1.8s for less than nothing, two slow midrange zooms, an old 24 mm f/2 going cheap, a battered 300 mm f/4.5, an 85, a 20-35 zoom, some crappy third-party teleconverters. In short, nothing exciting. No good lens going cheap, no cheapie worth using as a beater, nothing worth playing with for its own sake. Nothing holds its value anymore. Returning from El Salvador, you sold those two battered F3s for three times what a mint F3 high-eyepoint will fetch now. Photography today is nothing but a game of technology. In the computer age, the philosopher’s stone is merely a serviceable paperweight.
Poring over the used gear cabinet became unpleasantly like looking at Lucas Zane preserved in a museum. He had gone down to the ROM that summer, wanted to see the dinosaurs, felt he could deal with all those bones. But the place was closed for renovation. You want to see a dinosaur, look for your reflection in the glass.
Charlie, run-down, slightly stooped, thinning grey hair, asked if he wanted to take a closer look at anything. Charlie had worked there as long as Zane could remember. Longer than that, in fact. Charlie had worked there since the Nikon F, knew every good camera made since 1959. Tell him you needed to rig a remote trigger for an arcane motor drive that hadn’t been made since 1983, and he’d drag a dusty box up from the basement and find the connector you needed. With a wink: you can have that free because I’m pissed off at the boss today. Charlie liked anyone who wanted things obscure and obsolete.
“Those prices are breaking my heart,” said Zane.
“Used prices are way down. Great deals in there.”
“That’s what’s breaking my heart.”
Zane wandered away from the used cabinets to the back corner of the shop. On the back wall he found a shelf where assorted used developing tanks lay jumbled. Yard sale junk; no-one uses this stuff anymore. The shelf bore three lonely bottles of liquid black-and-white developer, Kodak HC-110. Zane picked one up and inspected it, taking note of the colour change at the top of the bottle, where the developer had reacted to the air. Easy to work with, has a long shelf life, but like any liquid developer it’s heavy to carry. It was Zane’s favourite, in the days when he still shot a lot of black and white. In El Salvador.
He set the bottle aside. The chemicals on the shelf were jumbled together in no particular order but he found bottles of rapid fixer and glacial acetic acid without difficulty. He still had his old tanks back at the apartment, in one of the boxes. He had all he needed. He deposited the chemicals on the counter and Charlie looked at him dubiously. He rarely used Zane’s name, probably couldn’t remember it without reading it off his credit card. But he could tell you that the difference between an AI-S Nikkor and an AI Nikkor only matters if you own the Nikon FA. And who owns a Nikon FA, anyway?
“I always preferred D-76.”
Which was exactly what Zane might have expected from Charlie.
“That’s what Saint Ansel used?”
“It is indeed.”
“Europe is in flames, and Ansel Adams is photographing rocks and trees. Cartier-Bresson said that.”
“But no doubt, someplace else was in flames when Cartier-Bresson was shooting guys jumping over puddles.”
Charlie put the chemicals in a plastic bag. Zane knew he was far more interested in the merits of HC-110 as compared to D-76, and could cheerfully have discussed contrast curves and push processing characteristics all afternoon. What a dead Frenchman had once said about a dead American, he couldn’t have cared less.
“Thing is, someplace or other is always in flames,” said Zane.Now that he had the chemicals, he felt no real desire to take any pictures worth developing.
“And there are always rocks and trees.”
Rocks and trees. Who cares? No doubt Charlie will shake his head sadly after you leave: what a pity that Zane guy hit the bottle. Used to be good, you know, a real pro. In any case, Cartier-Bresson had taken to painting by the time Capa got himself killed in Indochina. Zane was more or less sure of that. If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. Then Capa stepped on a mine. Cartier-Bresson was better off painting.
from Combat Camera
Oh, look — I have a blog. I’d almost forgotten, what with Christmas and all that kind of stuff. And what with the chore of resisting that post on how the gun lobby is its own worst enemy. Never blog about politics, I say.
Where was I? Oh, yes: the Globe & Mail, our esteemed national newspaper, has got around to reviewing Combat Camera. I guess they needed to hold something back to keep themselves busy in the cold, dark winter months. Anyway, the reviewer called it a “violent, funny, thought-provoking novel.”
Somerset – a one-time soldier and a freelance photographer – paints a convincing picture of Zane’s messed-up head: The reader follows as his mechanical eye scans a bleak, desolate Toronto, paying more attention to the lighting on people’s faces, their potential to become still images, than anything else. All that can puncture this barrier – his iron lens, as it were – are Zane’s horrifying war flashbacks.
Yet he maintains a consistent sense of humour – self-deprecating, gruff, curmudgeonly.
In the spirit of not commenting on one’s own reviews, not even the tripe written for the National Post by one Michel Basilieres, a man whose employment as a creative writing instructor despite his manifest inability to read bodes ill for Canadian writing, I’m not going to complain about the Hemingway thing. Inevitably, someone was going to make that comparison.
Tonight in Waterloo is the launch of the Fall issue of The New Quarterly, which will feature a screening of In The Wake Of The Flood (a documentary about Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood book tour), a show of Alan Dayton’s portraits of Canadian writers, and readings from me and some others. All this goes down at the Princess Twin, 46 King Street, in Waterloo, from 7:00 to 9:30. Admission is $10.
That there above picture would be the cover of said issue, which, incidentally, is a picture of yours truly. Taken by yours truly in a Colorado Springs hotel room with an adjoining door, through which I inadvertently learned many intimate details of my neighbours that evening, who were married, but not to each other, and making good use of their time. That’s probably more information than you really wanted, but it’s only a fraction of that I received. It became necessary to find distractions.
That issue also has an excerpt from Combat Camera and an interview with me, which you can read online at TNQ‘s website. Clearly, this is the finest magazine in Canada. And lest you think it’s all about me, there are also stories by Jessica Westhead and others, the winners of the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest, the winners of the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest (including Kerry Clare), a piece by Giller nominee Sarah Selecky, a bunch a poems, and colour plates of Alan Dayton’s portraits, including such literary luminaries as K.D. Miller, Steven Heighton, Russell Smith, Terry Griggs, Rebecca Rosenblum, my editor John Metcalf, and me. Yes, it is all about me.
You should definitely buy a copy.
Well, there was some confusion over the Combat Camera world tour, specifically our stop in Guelph, Ontario. I had thought that was not happening, but it is: November 8, 7:00 pm, at the Bookshelf, 41 Quebec Street.
Also reading will be Jessica Westhead and K.D. Miller.
If you inhabit Guelph or its environs, I hope to see you there.
Alex Good at goodreports.net has posted a review of Combat Camera, one that has improved my mood immeasurably.
Amidst all the ongoing kerfuffle about reviewing, negative and otherwise, it seems we forget what a review should do: dig into the book and report on what you find. As a writer, you put a lot of things into a novel, and are left to wonder if anyone will ever make the effort to pull them back out. Perhaps more gratifying than a positive review is one that takes the damn book seriously enough to devote itself to exploring how it works. (Or, in defence of negative reviews, how it falls short. Evaluation is inevitable.)
So I was happy to see Good’s discussion of the opening paragraph:
It’s worth taking a moment to stop and appreciate this. Aside from the stylish way that the strange and unlikely word “frangible” itself breaks into alliterative shards like fraught, fracture and fragments (a trick that’s repeated in the novel’s final paragraph, with its slick, sliding, and slippery words), it’s nice to see the dated image of the kaleidoscope (does anyone actually remember using these?) doing some real work as it’s paired with the cracked windshield to describe the splintering of light through glass. And note also how a “tableau” is an artistic arrangement, a static presentation of reality or picture, thus making the windshield a frame for the grimy reality of Zane’s life. His mind is a camera, and his car is too.
It’s a pleasure to have been read closely.
And yes, I remember playing with a kaleidoscope.
Spotty WiFi on the Via train back from Kingston, where half the town partied drunkenly under the far-from soundproof window of my hotel room until the small hours, has kept me from reporting on last night’s reading, or on the wood duck I spotted in a pond by the railway tracks somewhere up near Belleville, this latter proof in my personal calculus that all is right in my world.
Alexander MacLeod and I read last night at the Novel Idea bookshop in Kingston, a nice little shop that, judging from the inventory on hand, is doing much better than its independent counterpart here in London.
Steven Heighton did the introductions, and kicked the evening off with a reading from a poem and from Every Lost Country. His poem, on Eden Abergil, the former Israeli soldier who posted photographs of herself posing with Palestinian prisoners, trenchantly pointed out that we are no longer shocked by these things. Perhaps we’re no longer capable of being shocked. And this recalled Alexander MacLeod’s introductory remarks before I read in Montreal, in which he pointed out that war and pornography are the two things to which we have become utterly desensitized, and that one of the achievements of Combat Camera is to resensitize the reader. I can’t remember his wording. I was chiefly shocked, at the time, to discover that the book doesn’t suck.
Alex read from “The Loop.” Every time I’ve seen him read, he has used a different story, and every time, I find myself thinking, oh, yeah. That one. That’s a good story. Every time, without fail. So that’s as good a measure of why you should read Light Lifting as any — perhaps a better measure than any.
Both Alex (who has been on the road longer) and I were by last night entirely enervated, and so our post-reading celebrations were brief and involved that rare luxury, a prepared meal. And this allowed me to reprise an old discussion with Steven Heighton. (I had hoped he had forgotten my snotty, May 2010 self, but this was not the case.) We are, it turns out, united in our distrust of the externally imposed plot, which of course also makes me hopeless at writing genre fiction. I suppose there are worse fates.
I can’t believe everyone is this excited over some book about rabbits….
It occurred to me last night that I haven’t actually been in Montreal proper — that is, east of the airport — in some 23 years. And the less said about that, the better. Last night’s reading at Drawn & Quarter was, in any case, kind of an away-from-homecoming.
I found myself installed in a hotel room featuring a non-functional Jaccuzzi tub and mirrors on the ceiling. Actually, that isn’t precisely true: there is only one mirror on the ceiling, but it is exceptionally large. I celebrated my arrival in these fine digs by drinking The Famous Grouse out of a plastic cup. It is not clear what part of the grouse is used to make this so-called whisky, but it is my view that it is probably made from by-products.
Drawn & Quarterly is a nice bookshop, from which I escaped with credit limit intact only by that superhuman willpower for which I am not precisely well known. I did buy a copy of Harold Hoefle’s book, The Mountain Clinic.
Harold read first, by dint of losing the coin toss. Somehow, although the chances are fifty-fifty, it always comes up heads. You’ve got a lot to learn about coin tosses, I said. Alexander MacLeod read from “Wonder About Parents,” one of my favorite stories from Light Lifting, and one he hasn’t read from before.
He also kindly introduced me with a ringing endorsement of my book: “It’s about war. It’s about pornography. And it doesn’t suck!”
And I announced, to universal approval, the topic of my next novel:
My next novel will be about a courageous lesbian puppy growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, who rejects the hyper-masculine pheasant-hunting culture of her pointer forebears and embarks on a heart-warming journey to the big city, where she rescues a small child from a fucking well.
I feel this one will be a real winner. Now, on to Ottawa.
If Combat Camera moves westwards towards possibility, what does it mean that I’m bound for points east?
Tomorrow morning finds me on a train for Montreal, where I’ll be reading at Drawn & Quarterly tomorrow night.
Tuesday, I’ll be taking in Alexander MacLeod and Emma Donoghue at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
Then it’s off to Kingston for a reading at the Novel Idea bookstore Wednesday night.
All this time on trains will finally give me a chance to get some reading done.