Everyone compares this one to Catcher in the Rye, which is interesting to me because I haven’t read Catcher, and I think I would hate it, and yet I completely see why the two books are compared, and I loved Someday This Pain…
James has too many advantages to have the problems that he has. His family has money, an apartment in Manhattan, a part time job at his mother’s gallery, and he’s been accepted to Brown for next year (though not Harvard, Yale, or Columbia). His parents are divorced (though whose aren’t, these days?); unfortunately, his mother has just seen the end of her third marriage after a disastrous Las Vegas honeymoon. And James himself is not doing too well. The narrative voice has a kind of iciness to it, so it takes a while to understand just how sad and frightened and lonely James is; but you see him searching for old houses in the midwest. He does not want to go to college. He wants to sit in his old midwest house and read novels. And, more than anything, he wants to correct people on what they say. It’s what he spends the entire novel doing. They misuse words; they’re not precise enough. His father asks him whether he’s gay. His mother asks him whether he’s gay. He debates the nature of the question with them until, defeated, they accept a change of subject.
James is gay. He deigns to tell us this on page 192, of 228. His fear of intimacy is so great that it extends even to us, the readers.
However, this isn’t a novel about being gay. That may have something to do with how sad and frightened James is, but as James himself admits, he is so far from approaching another human being that his sexuality is two hundred percent theoretical. If anything, it seems symptomatic; James cannot face anything about himself.
This seems to me like the kind of novel I should be ready to criticize for being whiny and emo. Yet somehow it isn’t. I want to use those words they say book critics should never use, like delicate and luminous. James’s voice is stiff and awkward enough that it never reaches that emo-whiny level; you can see the clever swagger on the surface, and you can also see the sadness lurking underneath. And at the same time, there are these moments of description that go way beyond a mere insightful detail; they bore right through to James’s state of mind.
The cover tells you everything you need to know about this book: stark, pained, compelling.