Monday, January 24, 2011

My Review of Combat Camera

I will spare you the details, but up until recently I've been too busy to blog. So harried, in fact, that I lacked the time to post published work, which is really quite sad when you think about it.

Anyway, here is my review of Combat Camera by A. J. Somerset.

Combat Camera: Imprisoned behind the lens
A damaged ex-war photographer struggles to define some notion of redemption while paying the bills with second-rate porn
Toronto Star | Oct 24 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Lucas Zane is a photographer in his mid-40s whose career has lost focus. While that might sound like a bad joke (a photographer losing focus — get it?), Zane has a healthy appetite for strange humour: “At the bedroom door he paused. What is the proper form for dealing with a wounded, hung-over, messed-up porno chick in one’s bedroom?”

Zane, once a successful photojournalist who survived tours of Nicaragua, Lebanon and Afghanistan, now spends most of his time trying to avoid innumerable psychological landmines: “The mind, allowed to wander, can easily stray into a bad neighbourhood.” After post-traumatic stress amplifies his alcoholic tendencies and effectively ends his career, Zane finds himself snapping niche porn in Mississauga to pay his grocery bills.

London, Ont.-based A. J. Somerset, himself a photographer, uses his debut novel to juxtapose the “elegant lies” of the camera with the brutal rationalizations required to perform and distribute pornography. This might sound like Russell Smith territory, whose most recent book Girl Crazy also features Internet nudity and scenes set in strip clubs, but there’s nothing particularly erotic about Combat Camera. The niche porn is raw and violent while strippers appear bored if not worse.

To be fair, Zane finds these financially motivated exposures of the flesh to be especially unarousing due to a bullet wound that has inflicted a variety of physical dysfunctions. Unable to act upon Melissa’s flirtations (the aforementioned hung-over, messed-up porno chick) he instead expresses his affection by becoming a protective father figure.

Throughout the novel, Somerset alternates between the immediate and blunt trauma inflicted upon civilians in various warzones and the slower-acting but no less injurious actions of a culture lacking in modesty: “This is the story of our time. Hardcore goes mainstream. A generation gets its sex ed from the Internet. Teenaged girls photograph themselves in the mirror and post the pictures online, call it empowerment, go wild with empowerment at Fort Lauderdale, demonstrate empowerment at Mardi Gras for cheap strings of beads, email their empowerment to boys they like.”

As the above demonstrates, Somerset is a confident, gifted writer, which explains why Combat Camera has already won the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Somerset is able to seamlessly switch between dialogue and Zane’s internal monologue as he darts between grim horror and grim comedy. He also avoids the arid claustrophobia endemic to novels where much of the action takes place within the main character’s mind.

But the most satisfying aspects of this novel involve Somerset’s refusal to make obvious the numerous parallels between photography and fiction:

 • “You define what’s in the story and what remains untold.”
 • “Pictures don’t preserve anything, much less the truth. What you put on film is 1/250th of a second.”
 • “Photographs never lie, but liars can take photographs.”

Such observations offer an ongoing argument between the camera lens and the keyboard, with the novel eventually revealing the strengths and limitations of both.

Although the subject matter and tone could not be more different, Combat Camera retains echoes of Maggie Helwig’s superlative Girls Fall Down from 2008, which also features a photographer as protagonist. In Girls Fall Down, the photographer in question is slowly losing his sight, provoking a desperate chase to capture his surroundings before the inevitable darkness arrives.

Combat Camera’s Zane, meanwhile, hides behind his camera in order to shut out the world around him, haunted by everyone he has imprisoned in silver prints, unable or unwilling to see what’s right in front of him.