A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla by Nick Fowler

Stephen B. Armstrong

But while the conditions and circumstances that afflict the characters are strange, their agonies, of loneliness and alienation, are universal; and Fowler's story aches with a hurt many people, who've loved and lost, should recognize.

A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla

Publisher: Random House
Length: 416
Price: $24.95 U.S.
Author: Nick Fowler
US publication date: 2002-06
"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."
� T.S. Eliot, from "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

Many novels, particularly first ones, contain elements taken from the author's own experiences, an influence, no doubt, of the popular maxim, "Write what you know". The phenomenon is so prevalent, in fact, it has generated a great deal of scholarship, and new literary biographies -- which focus on the links between life and art -- seem to get published every year.

There's nothing wrong with this approach to reading, per se. Nevertheless, when a general reader comes to a novel and looks for the factual in the fictitious, he or she may, unwittingly, cheat themselves of the pleasures novels offer. That is, if readers find themselves wondering "Did this really happen?" and "What will this character's real-life counterpart think?" and so forth, they are not completely accepting the novel as an imaginary work, and the main objective of fiction -- to provide a reprieve from the world and its problems -- is prevented from being achieved.

This personal-history factor becomes a problem of sorts, unfortunately, when we first open Nick Fowler's debut novel A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla, thanks in part to the biographical sketch that appears on the dust jacket: "Fowler, a musician....grew up in Tallahassee, Florida [and] graduated from Cornell University". Like the author, you see, the novel's protagonist Curtis Birnbaum is a rock musician, a north Florida fugitive and a Cornell grad. And thus the expectation that this book -- like Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, or, for that matter, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous -- is yet another example of autobiography -- passed off as fiction -- doesn't seem to be an unreasonable one.

Readers will probably spend more of their time contemplating and enjoying the book's fictional truths, rather than wondering and worrying about its historical veracities, however, once they start reading A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla. And this is largely because Fowler's story about a New York rock 'n' roller's short-lived affair with a beautiful woman strays into fantasy too often to be considered a literal translation of his own experiences. Coincidences, for instance, often occur with almost magical timing, and his characters tend to be grotesquely selfish and self-absorbed, not unlike the personalities that appear in other surreal novels like, say, Kafka's The Trial or Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. But while the conditions and circumstances that afflict the characters are strange, their agonies, of loneliness and alienation, are universal; and Fowler's story aches with a hurt many people, who've loved and lost, should recognize.

Of course, the argument might be made that writers create unusual situations and characters when they are not able to render experience otherwise. Fowler, though, is a good, perhaps great, craftsman and, when he wants to, he constructs his images, scenarios and crises with simplicity and precision. Consider this fine passage: "I watched their cab wander into the wide, elegant din of Lafayette Street. Just as I was about to turn away, Camilla's head twisted back around. And as she looked at me through the dark shrinking rear window, the soft jewel of orchid aglow in her hair, she touched the glass". He also plots his story along an easy to follow (and enjoy) U-shaped pattern, that tracks (or, rather, leads) Curtis as he descends into and subsequently ascends from suicidal self-loathing.

But this novel is far more than a collection of oddballs moving along a conventional dramatic arch. For example, Fowler often reveals his knowledge of great writers and, following the example set by T.S. Eliot and other modernists, alludes to and emulates them. In the opening section, for instance, Curtis meets a precocious neighbor, a young girl named Little Green (a reference, by the way, to a Joni Mitchell song). Charismatic, tough and damaged, Little Green quickly arouses Curtis' protective, paternal affections. Sound familiar? Salinger created a similar scenario in his great story "For Esme¢ -- With Love and Squalor". And though we might be tempted to call homage such as this derivative, it seems likely that Fowler is behaving a lot like Hemingway, who often mimicked writers in order to display his talent.

This ambitiousness -- this Oedipal disposition -- becomes more obvious, perhaps, when we look at a passage that appears late in the novel. Here, Curtis, destitute and humiliated, stands on top of a record company office building, planning to jump. He decides not to, however, and the publicity he creates wins him a recording contract. This allusion will be missed, though, if we aren't familiar with Don DeLillo's novel Great Jones Street, which chronicles a self-destructive rock musician as he attempts to escape from and destroy his career. As the story starts, he explains, "[T]he only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide".

The frequency of these attempts at recognizing and besting older writers (and their frequent success) probably reveal more about Fowler's personality -- and his past and his points of view -- than any biographical sketch. They also contribute to the suspension of disbelief, the narcotic forgetfulness, that distinguishes enjoyable reading experiences from unpleasant ones. In short, Fowler, as he ceaselessly strives to "make it new", transcends the limits of influence to create a solid, distinct and admirable work of art.





Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.