Though constantly sought by avid readers, it seldom happens: complete immersion into a novel, getting lost in the pages. It’s the benchmark for good writing. And after a long dry spell of books which, though good, didn’t seduce me into complete suspension of disbelief, I picked up Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset. His beautifully written novel, full of dark humour and utterly compelling characters, took me to that place most readers long for.
At the center of the plot stands Lucas Zane, a once-famous combat photographer who, scarred by most of the major conflicts of the latter twentieth century, returns to Toronto and hides from his hallucinations in his dank apartment. To pay the bills, he takes photos for a low-budget porn company. “After awhile, skin is just skin.” There he meets Melissa, a disillusioned young porn actress who gets beaten to a pulp by her male co-star. In a sudden burst of empathy, Zane takes her under his wing and takes her away from all of it, to Vancouver, where she wants to start over. The plot unfolds during their car trip across the country as the characters confront both each other and the stories they’ve constructed to shield themselves from the past.
The novel is unabashedly Canadian. The most obvious example of this is the well-used plot device of the cathartic trans-Canada journey. But the road trip isn’t forced. It grows organically from the first part of the novel. Toronto’s seedier neighbourhoods, bleak truck stops, and the Vancouver rains also feature prominently in the novel and give a particularly Canadian flavour to the book’s brooding tone. Despite this, the novel avoids the preoccupation with “the land” and the long, indulgent passages of description that burden many other Canadian novels. Although the story takes place in Canada, it’s not just about Canada, and thereby avoids the Canadiana pitfall, where well intentioned musings about national identity degenerate into kitsch.
It also helps that the story is incredibly well written. Stunning passages dot almost every page like nuggets in a gold pan. They demand the reader’s attention: “He ended his days standing by the window of his hotel room, watching the evening light turn soft and blue and fade as the sky turned purple, watching the city transform from a sprawling, ugly jumble of concrete and corrugated iron into a network of coloured lights splattered against the dark blanket of night: beauty distilled out of misery.” Another remarkable passage occurs as the pair are cruising along the northern shore of Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie: “We could[…]have slipped back to prehistory, violated fundamental laws of physics and somehow cut our moorings. The anchor dragging in the night, you wake up lost and out of sight of land. But this road cutting the landscape, these speed limit signs, fast-food wrappers and discarded pop cans: all this refuse places us in our own tarnished century. Lucky us.” The rhythm of Somerset’s prose amplifies the story’s irony, deepens the characters’ humanity, and pulls the reader into the plot.
The deeply felt relationship between Zane and Melissa captivated me until the last pages.
Justin Scherer is a writer, translator, and educator currently based in Kiel, Germany.