Today I read a novel, The Camellia City by Phillip Routh. I rarely read all day long; I rarely want to. Today I wanted to.
The Camellia City follows the thoughts and weekend travails of Morgan Baines, a writer resigned to declining success. Baines travels south to teach a writing workshop in a humid city and drooping university. He only agreed to the duty because of the star attraction, a famous writer to whom he hoped to hand off his latest manuscript and, perhaps, turn decline to incline again. It is an aim destined to reveal that the target is ill-placed. The aim may more truly be not success but a modicum of satisfaction. As Routh shows, that is an elusive goal even for those who have attained key characteristics of success—recognition, fame, money, and, primarily, continuous publication. Satisfaction, contentment, surety. These characteristics elude our grasp.
There is much to enjoy in the harrowing self-reflection of Baines and his razor-sharp, cutting view of the hypocritical publishing world built on network rather than talent. There is enough action and enough characters to keep the gentle plot revealing various perspectives of the writing life, from the hackneyed academic to the middle-aged housewife looking for purpose, from the literary star to the child finding worlds in stories, from the brutish agent to the overlooked writer. The world of literary fiction is small and getting even smaller. So perhaps that’s why the investment in its meanings is that much more tortured; the entrance into its esteemed club that much more difficult.
Baines sees all this from the vantage of some age, some success, some failure, some jealousy. “Life deflated,” as Routh puts it, succinct and poignant. I found the deflation not negative so much as warmly soft, like the deflation of an air mattress, relieved of its seam-bursting fullness. No one is spritely anymore, no ideal is shiny nor unburnished. But in Routh’s capable storytelling and humane point of view, there’s a cushion for the thud.