Monday, July 21, 2008

Pain Hurts

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron. I read this book in one long sitting yesterday. It's very good--smart, often funny, well-written, tragic, moving. I'm not 100% sure how I feel about it as a young adult novel, though.

The story is told in first person, from the point of view of 18-year-old James Sveck, who is both introverted and depressed. I don't know a whole lot about depression, but I have learned something of introverts in my time here on Earth, and I will tell you that he doesn't deal with it well. As the narrator, he goes on at length about what he's thinking and how he views the world, but, in spite of being intelligent and very articulate, he can't seem to either say what he thinks to the people in his life, or to find anything at all to say much of the time. I know there will be plenty of teenagers who can sympathize with that--what's going on inside me is complicated, but I can't say anything.

The developmental assets this book most made me think of, interestingly, are the "constructive use of time" assets--that one should pursue creative activities, religious practice, and time at home (presumably with family). Though I think these guidelines are somewhat off base (missing the point--not all passions are creative, and some people might want to be tinkering with car engines or practicing their backhand and they might still be getting a lot of the same pleasures and improvement that come with art and music), I do like the idea that a person should pursue something with some diligence and commitment, and that it will bring focus and accomplishment to their lives. I think this is a big part of what is missing in James--and truly, often a major sign of depression in general.

I also think it's interesting that most books' relation with the developmental assets is to illustrate a situation in which they're missing. As Amy mentioned, there are a lot more books about young people who are on their own, lacking support or opportunity or whatever asset you'd like to look at, than there are stories about people who are happy. This relates to the missing parents syndrome, but I think it also relates to the need for conflict in narrative, and to the idea that people who are striving to overcome a lack often make themselves stronger in other ways to compensate.

Interestingly, the parents in this story are not negligent, though they are preoccupied. It would be more accurate to say that they're not equipped to deal with their son--mostly because he's not equipped to deal with them, or anyone else. James just doesn't fit comfortably in the world. Everything makes him a little sad, especially happy things. Very occasionally, he'll find something beautiful, usually something very, very tragic. It's not surprising that people don't understand him, or even, given everything else about James, that he doesn't understand them.

I think this book would appeal to advanced readers, to people who are already selecting most of their reading from the adult section of the library. And I think this book would be very appealing to adults; in spite of the fact that it's narrated by a teenager (not by an adult looking back on being a teenager), I think that more adults will relate to James' dislike of people his own age, his tendency to see happiness as a reminder of pervasive despair, what is almost his ennui.

The teenager this is meant for definitely exists, though, and perhaps this book is uniquely suited for him or her. I think that someone who, like James, hates young people who are full of hope and promise (at least partly because he knows that in some fundamental way he "should" or is expected to be that person) must feel very lonely, and would cherish the sense of connection that might arise from reading a book like this.

So I love this book, and I recommend it (Katie, if you're out there, I think you might like this). I imagine it's not going to fly off the shelves the way the vampire books do, but the teenager who is roaming the stacks ravenously and is lucky enough to find it might just be blown away.

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