Winner of the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award
Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset from indie press Biblioasis was one of the novels that lit up the CanLit social media scene a few years ago. I bought it shortly after it came out, but it seemed to perpetually sit on my “to-read” list until I spotted it again while rearranging my bookshelf. This is the story of Lucas Zane, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer currently working for a low-end online porn company. But, this is only one of Zane’s many problems, he obviously has PTSD, he has a drinking problem, he’s impotent, and, due to an injury, he can’t eat anything greasy and is essentially restricted to dry salad. The novel centers on Zane’s relationship with Melissa, a young stripper/porn star. Combat Camera is the author’s first book, but you could never tell. This is an astonishingly well written novel and one of the best books I have read in years; it has everything to make it a classic and stand-up against the test of time.
The unfolding of Zane’s story is told in two separate and distinct parts. Part One is a gritty urban portrayal of Zane and how his relationship begins with Melissa. Zane’s internal torment is laid bare for the reader using prose that would rival even the best writers of psychological fiction. We get snippets of his past, his current job at the studio, his troubles, and what makes him tick. In an attempt to regain some credibility as a serious photography, Zane decides to do a story on Melissa. But, after she is assaulted on-set by her co-star Bill, the pair of them decides to take off to Vancouver so that she can make a fresh break with her family. At this point in the novel, Part Two, we have what I think is the best road story in contemporary Canadian fiction. The misanthropic duo makes their way from Toronto to the west coast with the variety of trouble you would expect from two people like Zane and Melissa.
I was not expecting a road story when I began Combat Camera, but I was very satisfied with the results. The book is structured in almost a perfect V: a gradual descent to rock bottom for both Zane and Melissa and a gradual build-up back to some level of normalcy – in their world at least – while they head west (this of course is up-ended in the final few pages which I won’t spoil). Throughout both parts, Somerset seamlessly weaves in Zane’s wild back-story of his rise and fall as a respected photojournalist.
Combat Camera is a character driven novel. Somerset kept the cast small, and I think that in doing so he was able to make each one very memorable and three dimensional: Zane goes from the Scrooge-like shell of a man to a man with a very slight glimmer of hope who was once again able to feel a connection, albeit buried, to another human-being – for better or worse. And Melissa is very complex but ultimately never changes her spots so-to-speak as we see at the story’s conclusion. These are characters that you feel hopeful for, but at the same time are not overly likeable – it’s an interesting paradox that Somerset develops with his two protagonists. For me, the minor characters, particularly in Part One, were perhaps my favorite element of the novel – particularly Rich Barker. Rich is a peddler of low-budget and low-quality porn, but he is truly a very low-brow renaissance man with a highly intellectual opinion of what he has to offer the world. His sister and business partner, Jade, the grounded one, has a more bleak and Machiavellian personality and is equally as entertaining.
This book is also very funny. Somerset’s humour is not topical knee-slapping comedy; it is more of a dark sardonic wit. And finally, Combat Camera is also a fascinating look at the art of photography from a variety of angles. Somerset delves into themes of the role and existence of art, particularly in chaotic places and situations; while doing so, he presents a technical illustration of this craft in much the same way as John Irving did in The World According to Garp with fiction writing. You are not bored or lost in technical jargon; instead you are pulled even further into the world of Lucas Zane because to understand Zane, you must understand photography.
Combat Camera is an immensely enjoyable debut novel that I think will stand out as one of the best Canadian books to come out of the 2010s and could easily stand up to the critical rigors of any advanced university English seminar. It’s psychological, it’s a road story, the characters are memorable and highly complex, the prose is brilliant and written with pinpoint precision, it’s funny, and ultimately it leaves you pondering what’s next for Zane and Melissa.