Combat Camera

     Reading Combat Camera, A.J. Somerset’s brave and gritty debut novel, one discerns here and there evidence of influence from Nathanael West’s classic Miss Lonelyhearts: the disillusioned and powerless protagonist trapped in a job that threatens to destroy his soul; the amoral boss given to endless philosophical pontificating; the vivid depictions of the squalor and desperation of the lost and disowned. For West, all that squalor was easily found in America during the Depression. In Combat Camera, the sordid setting is the realm of hardcore internet porn. Any influence from Nathanael West, however minimal it may actually be, is of course a good thing, but unlike the great American satirist, Somerset offers his protagonist something Miss Lonelyhearts never gets: a viable opportunity for redemption, a possible second chance. West was never so cruel.

     Once a prize-winning freelance photographer and first-hand witness to the bloody conflicts in El Salvador, the West Bank, and Chechnya, among other hellholes, Lucas Zane is lost. Damaged, in a number of ways, and burnt-out, Zane simply exists, alone and beyond hope, in a tiny apartment in Toronto. But Melissa, one of the porn “models” he photographs, presumably recognizing a decent person and potential ally beneath the numb exterior, begins to wake Zane up and starts giving him ideas. Not the usual ideas, not the kind you might expect, but ideas instead about reviving his career, returning to legitimacy. Zane even starts to act on these ideas, despite his better judgement.

     The unlikely pair soon embark on a cross-Canada roadtrip, the purpose being to return Melissa to her home in Vancouver, but it also gives Zane the chance to document the experience on film, to attempt a photo essay that may or may not get him back into the photo-journalism game. It also gives Somerset a chance to delve deeply into the world of his protagonist with a series of expansive and involving monologues. On the long stretches of endless prairie highway, Zane, assuming Melissa lies asleep in the passenger seat, alleviates his own boredom by telling her what he can’t when she’s awake: the tale of his ruined career, the story of his broken life. These passages make for the most engrossing and sparkling writing in the book and also more than compensate for the plot at times straining the limits of plausibility. Not so for Zane himself and his adventures and misadventures, the things he did and saw in Sarajevo, Iraq, Liberia and Berlin. Zane’s intriguing reflections and asides on the processes of photography, the necessary routines and many questions, both technical and metaphysical, also add a strengthening level of verisimilitude.

     But Somerset, to his credit, is not all that concerned with making sure the reader has a story where everything makes sense and all is smartly squared away by book’s end. Quite the opposite, in fact. Zane’s monologues cue us to the likely outcome of his own attempt at a second chance; the brutal truth is he doesn’t believe such a thing is ever possible, for anyone. Zane’s is a point of view so world-weary and disillusioned, so determined to see life for what it truly is, as to make possible only one kind of resolution. It’s not quite the black end that befalls Miss Lonelyhearts, but it’s dark enough. At least West puts his protagonist out of his misery; Somerset is not so kind.   — Michael Carbert