Watch Your Manors

David Cox, A Street in Harborne.
David Cox, A Street in Harborne.

A new novel by Peter Cameron doesn’t do much to announce itself as a literary event. His books are short—only one, The City of Your Final Destination, is longer than three hundred pages—and are not consciously “brainy.” Their chief literary virtues are wit, charm, and lightness of touch, qualities infrequently found in contemporary American fiction except in ersatz form, as twee quirkiness. Cameron is above all a novelist of manners, building his effects from the drama and comedy of human relationships, working always on a small scale, so it has been tempting to treat his books as “minor.” (This partially explains why his critically acclaimed novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, narrated by a gay teenager navigating New York City, was originally marketed as “Young Adult.”) It’s true, Cameron has little interest in formal experimentation and even less in the novel as a vehicle for political or cultural criticism, setting himself apart from contemporaries like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen. The pleasure his work provides is not the pleasure of encountering big ideas—about, say, the way technology changes society, or the way power structures limit human freedom, or the fate of the family in late-capitalist society. Instead, Cameron specializes in emotional subtlety and unspoken desires—all the while hinting at an almost overwhelming disorder swirling beneath the placid surface.

Cameron’s method typically involves transporting characters to unfamiliar settings and watching them come to grips with the custom of the country. In The Weekend, Lyle leaves Manhattan for the upstate New York home of his married best friends, Marian and John. Lyle is not a stranger, exactly, but he has been estranged from Marian and John by the death of his lover, Tony, the figure around whom they had all pivoted. Now the three surviving characters must recalibrate their relationships in uncomfortable ways and face up to the possibility that however close they are, they might not like each other very much. Such are the quiet human dilemmas from which Cameron builds his work. (One thinks of Austen’s two inches of ivory.) In my favorite of his novels, the darkly ironic Andorra, a Nabokovian narrator named Alexander Fox, “compelled by circumstances to begin [his] life again in some new place,” arrives in the titular country—which, incidentally, bears little resemblance to the actual European microstate of that name. He bumbles through several affairs before what seems like passive confusion turns to something sinister. Omar Razaghi, the struggling academic in The City of Your Final Destination, travels to Uruguay—again the name is more a foreign placeholder than an actual geographic signifier—seeking permission from the heirs of a Latin American novelist to write his biography. He becomes entangled with the writer’s widow, mistress, and brother, who play Omar off each other, settling old grudges beyond his understanding. The one exception would seem to be James Sveck, the eighteen-year-old New Yorker who narrates Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. But James inhabits his own life on the precipice of adulthood like a confused and frightened tourist.

Cameron’s latest novel, Coral Glynn, follows this “stranger comes to town” template. The novel begins with the arrival of Coral, a young, itinerant nurse, at Hart House, an English country estate where she’s been hired to care for the dying matriarch, Mrs. Hart, who lives at the house with her son. Major Clement Hart has been wounded in the Second World War—the year is 1950—and he walks with a brace. “You seem to do very well with it,” Coral tells him when they run into each other on the grounds of Hart House. “I can manage the straight and narrow,” Clement replies, “which I suppose is all a man like me is entitled to. Yet I miss the woods. I had a fort in the woods, when I was young, where I played soldier.”

In Cameron’s hands, such innocuous scraps of dialogue reverberate, causing seemingly comic misunderstandings to build quietly, providing the novels with power, and sometimes a sudden tragedy. We think of Clement’s childhood play in the woods, and his adult confinement to the straight and narrow, when he discusses plans to propose to Coral with his childhood friend, Robin Lofting, in a scene that highlights Cameron’s adroit touch with suggestive dialogue.

“Has she bosoms?” [Robin asks.]

“I was under the impression that all women had a bosom.”

“Yes, but they vary in size. What size are her bosoms?”

“What an extraordinary question. Why ever would you enquire about such a thing?”

“Because, as I have previously stated, we are two men talking in a pub. We must make an effort to follow protocol.”

“Then the best I can tell you is that her bosom—I do not like the word—is perfectly proportionate.”

“What word do you like?”

“I do not like any word. I do not like the subject.”

“Most men do. The marrying kind, at any rate. You shall have to make an effort.”

All of Cameron’s novels contain both gay and straight relationships, but he shows no more interest in sexual politics than in any other kind. When his characters are constrained by social prejudice, he is more apt to trace the human response to such constraints than to diagnose the forces that give rise to them. Though Robin has already married, he remains far more comfortable loving Clement than Clement is returning that love. He thinks of their past with nostalgia, where Clement feels it as a burden and an embarrassment. Of course, Coral doesn’t understand the nature of this relationship when she agrees to marry Clement, but she is carrying her own secret, also of a sexual nature, having to do with the previous house at which she served as a nurse. The novel is further darkened by a criminal investigation with just the right amount of melodrama, which literally concerns children playing in the woods. Like Alexander in Andorra, Coral becomes implicated in a murder she didn’t commit because of her unwillingness to admit to far lesser transgressions, and like him her attempts to escape the consequences of this mistake only compound it. Many of Cameron’s transplanted characters are similarly paralyzed by propriety, remaining passive just long enough to complicate matters before springing into actions that hasten what fate has laid out.

Despite such similarities to Cameron’s previous novels, Coral Glynn isn’t quite like any of them, any more than they are quite like each other. Cameron has never before set a book some distance in the past; though he has set novels in foreign countries, he has never made so much of the specifics of these locales. His choice of midcentury Britain is meaningful in a way that earlier settings like Andorra and Uruguay are not. Most of the plot’s complications, beginning with the complications of closeted homosexuality, rely on the restrictions of local norms. Unusually, Cameron seeks explicitly to capture the flavor of a particular time and place, and the story he tells could not have happened quite this way anywhere else. Still, Coral Glynn doesn’t read like a historical novel, because Cameron has done little to adjust his style to the demands of this setting. This sounds like a failure, except that Cameron’s style as it is meets these demands so perfectly. A reader of his previous works will find something revelatory in Coral Glynn, which makes sense of all the characteristics—charm, wit, elegance, and above all the ability to sound repeated variations on a single theme, making the melody new each time—that I have noted above. We may be so slow to recognize Cameron as a twenty-first-century American master because he has the sensibility of a twentieth-century British one.

While his maximalist peers can trace a line back to Dickens, or even Fielding and Sterne, they do so by way of various American, European, and Latin American modernists and postmodernists. Cameron is unusual in his direct debt to great midcentury British novelists like Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Pym, who seem quiet precisely because they take the unspeakable as their subject. The chief insight of their work is that, as Taylor wrote in At Mrs. Lippincote’s, “we none of us speak the truth about the rooms which we keep locked.” One might call these writers “minor,” in just the way that Cameron is a minor writer. They aren’t likely to show up in the personal canons of Cameron’s “major” contemporaries. But these are his writers, and Coral Glynn is his tribute to them. It is filled with neat allusions—like the mention of a Mrs. Lippincott in town. As such, it ought to read like an exercise in pastiche, but it never does, because Cameron has so wholly and admiringly absorbed the lessons of these women, chief among them how much can be made out of the effort to follow protocol and out of the distance this protocol creates between what is spoken and what one wants to express.

Cameron is obviously aware of the challenge such themes present to readers and writers used to a modern world where little is left unsaid, where there is no protocol to follow, and no rooms are kept locked. He plays nicely with this dilemma in Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, as James Sveck’s father fumblingly asks if he’s gay. “Why?” James asks. “Do you get to take an extra deduction on your taxes or something?” “If you are gay,” his father responds, “I want to be properly supportive.” “You wouldn’t be supportive if I were straight?” James wonders. One watches James struggling to find resistance, a force against which to define himself. A similar struggle has seemed to manifest itself throughout Cameron’s career, as he has shuttled characters around to towns and countries more or less of his own imagining, setting them free to wonder over the right thing to say or do, creating mortal consequences for their faults of propriety. When reading Coral Glynn, one senses that all this wandering has finally brought Cameron to a kind of native ground.

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor of Harper’s Magazine. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, will be published in the spring.