Thursday, March 03, 2011

COMBAT CAMERA by A.J. Somerset (2010) Biblioasis, 255 pages

Protagonist Lucas Zane is a burnt-out war photographer who finds himself making rent money working for an odious impresario of low budget pornography, Richard Barker in Mississauga. When an incident with one of the young actresses, Melissa, moves Zane to action, the two of them begin a journey that could possibly lead to their salvation.

The opening of COMBAT CAMERA hooked me. The prose is visceral and clean. Somerset writes like Hemingway by way of Richard Ford, and any of you who know me know how much I admire Ford's work: there's no finer social satirist writing today. Read the first paragraph and you'll understand what I mean:

"The most alarming development now confronting Zane was his suddenly frangible reality. Even his routine moments had become fraught with risk. Suppose, for example, a glint of sunlight was to catch the crack traversing his grime-smeared windshield; a disturbance as trivial as this could inexplicably fracture the entire tableau, could set fragments of his past tilting and sliding through his mind like pieces of coloured glass in a broken kaleidoscope. Things finally come to rest in a jagged landscape of unwelcome memories, and then where in hell are you?"

On almost every page of COMBAT CAMERA there's a found poem, like this one:

frangible reality
routine moments

fraught with risk
could fracture

the entire tableau
could set fragments

of his past
tilting and sliding

like pieces of coloured glass
in a broken kaleidoscope

Somerset never wants for narrative drive nor does he resist describing the horrors that haunt Zane from his experiences as a photographer on the fronts of civil wars in Liberia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone. Each flashback comes in a thoughtfully framed image and I felt as though I were peering over Zane's shoulder daring to take a closer look at each moment with him. Several times those photos brought to mind the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange--photographers whose visual perspectives defined moments.

Somerset's writing is not surprisingly filmic. He is able to turn a visual image into such convincing prose that it felt consistently as though I were working my way through a photo essay.

Consider the final paragraph as well:

"Zane stood at the window in the failing light and looked out over the freight yard, over gulls wheeling above steel and crushed stone, over wooden railway ties slick with rain, the river beyond sliding and eddying down to meet the sea. A lone man in a rain slicker walked between the rails. He carried a plain aluminum lunch box and a thermos, and with every step his feet slipped in wet gravel. The man walked with his head down, plodding, and Zane watched him until he disappeared behind graffiti-scarred cars that still stood patiently rusting in the endless rain, long after discharging their loads of mysterious freight."

Fantastic, isn't it?

I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Canadian novelist Ray Robertson calls it "a lean, mean piece of story-telling machine" and COMBAT CAMERA won the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award.

A.J. Somerset is a writer whose trajectory I am keen to follow. And, to do my bit in promoting his work, I plan to put COMBAT CAMERA on my curriculum for Grade 12 Writer's Craft for 2011-2012. It will be a perfect compliment to Dexter Filkins' series of personal essays in THE FOREVER WAR.

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