By A. J. Somerset
A steady professionalism and ability to focus on the job at hand is what saves Conrad’s Marlow from the abysses of the destructive element. Steaming into the heart of darkness, he avoids dangerous reflection through a close attention to his navigational duties:
I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a look-out for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for the next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.
It is a lesson that photojournalist Lucas Zane, hero of A. J. Somerset’s well-crafted debut Combat Camera, has taken to heart. Zane’s mantra is to “stay grounded,” to pay attention only to facts, to become a “creature of routine.” By these means he hopes to keep his mind off both the ghosts of his past and the wreckage of his present. After suffering various physical and mental breakdowns, Zane, a former Pulitzer Prize winner, now shoots stills during ultra-low budget porn movies. Denying himself the oblivion of substance abuse and physically incapable of sexual release (an old war wound that also leaves him unable to digest greasy food), he goes through the motions of his job, becoming lost in habit. Taking pictures, he doesn’t have to think. His “mind is a camera,” only processing light.
The conceit of seeing the world as though through a lens is introduced in the arresting opening paragraph:
The most alarming development now confronting Zane was his suddenly frangible reality. Even his routine moments had become fraught with risk. Suppose, for example, a glint of sunlight was to catch the crack traversing his grime-smeared windshield; a disturbance as trivial as this could inexplicably fracture the entire tableau, could set fragments of his past tilting and sliding through his mind like pieces of coloured glass in a broken kaleidoscope. Things finally come to rest in a jagged landscape of unwelcome memories, and then where the hell are you?
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.
As a photographer Zane sees everything in terms of framing and light, “the mere incidents of the surface” that Marlow uses to keep himself on an even keel. It is a conscious retreat into superficiality, and so the “comfortable pattern” of “concrete facts” that make up Zane’s life is furnished almost entirely with cliché. The porn films he works on are, of course, pure formula (naughty schoolgirls are a specialty). But even behind the scenes everything is just as conventional. On the set he has to dodge clichés like bullets. He comes in to work looking like death warmed over. His boss explains how the eyes are window to the soul. The male talent (himself an “all dick and no brain” stereo type) complains that his partner has the appearance of a deer caught in the headlights. An aspiring porn star observes that rain is nice weather for a duck. And so it goes.
This is the comfort language of routine, of “have a nice day” and all the rest of it. A taste for inauthentic sentiment is Zane’s response to shell shock. His version of post-traumatic stress disorder even leaves him crying at television commercials for long-distance telephone plans. And while he is very much aware of the presence of so much cliché in his life, he finds it a hard habit to kick. Two instances:
Seeing a colleague die in Afghanistan he can only think of what his Dad “always said,” that “life isn’t fair.”
What a terrible thing to feel at the transcendent moment. How utterly banal.
And on the road, checking into a motel with his “subject” Melissa:
A flicker across the background, perhaps a scratch in the film. Melissa in soft focus. What you need here, friend, is a trench coat and a fedora to go with the motel’s flickering neon sign. Never trust a dame. Especially not a hard-luck dame in cheap sunglasses who speaks in B-movie clichés. Not as long as your film is noir – and, at present, everything is monochrome. It gives everything that dramatic look.
Indeed, while traveling together Lucas and Melissa are inevitably interpreted as a visual cliché: abusive older boyfriend/black-eyed girlfriend in denial. At every stop, to nearly everyone they meet, they have to explain that things are not how they seem. But then nothing is. “Lucas Zane” doesn’t sound like a real name, but is. “Melissa,” on the other hand, is a nom de porn. And appearances, we are reminded, matter. They can get you in a lot of trouble.
The artist, as Amis lectures, is a warrior against cliché. What makes Zane a truly burned out case is his sense that this is all life has left to offer. Like Justin in Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy, he can be described (I am borrowing from Jeet Heer’s review of Girl Crazy in Canadian Notes & Queries) as a “chivalric pornographer.” Unlike Justin, however, he is not transformed by his relationship with a fallen woman. In fact, one of his last lines is the fatalistic “None of us can change anything.” This is the voice of wisdom, which is not the same as saying he is right. With age comes passivity. Justin is, in the end, living a naive player’s fantasy – the drugs, the baggy clothes, the ho’s – whereas Zane is crippled by self-awareness and trapped inside a story he is no longer the author of. Justin and Zane, who are both fringe cultural workers, represent a tragic response to a fundamental part of the modern cultural environment.
Girl Crazy and Combat Camera are first-rate novels that come, I think, to the same grim conclusion about how to cope with our own personal hearts of darkness. Though the “incidents of the surface” involve sleazy, underworld happenings, both books are finally concerned with a more insidious form of corruption: the seductive power of illusions.
Review first published online November 1, 2010.