For me, writing a review of an author that I truly love – like, say, Camden Joy – is always a tricky business. Objectivity and scholarly reserve (the alleged sources of authority for a book reviewer) tend to go right out the window in favor of awestruck rhetoric and lots of exclamation points, warping the so-called review into a dressed-up fan letter. In the particular case of Camden Joy, this difficulty is compounded by the fact that the author in question has been hailed as the new messiah of rock criticism by everyone from Dennis Cooper to Rolling Stone – and how, I begin to wonder, does one review the crown prince of reviewers? But the fact is that I’ve got a freshly underlined copy of Lost Joy in front of me, and a deadline looming, so I suppose there’s nothing for it but to try and hold onto my cool for as long as I can, and give this sucker my best shot.
For those not familiar with the work of Camden Joy, I should begin by explaining that saying that CJ writes rock criticism is a little like saying that Van Gogh painted landscapes. While Joy does write primarily about rock bands, he does so first and foremost by writing about himself. For CJ, music isn’t just what happens between the covers of an album, or in a club: it’s the stage on which life itself unfolds. After all, he writes, “Isn’t that what music is for, to aid us in telling our stories and living our lives?” Combined with his brilliant prose style, this personal immediacy gives Camden Joy’s stories an impact and intimacy that few other writers can equal.
Traditionally, the position of the critic is in a kind of alienated no-man’s land, perched between the artist’s god’s-eye view of the work in question and the audience’s (potentially) uncritical enjoyment of it. Straddling this divide, most critics end up either trying to insinuate themselves, unnoticed, into the margins of their reviews, or trying to disappear entirely. Rather than picking one of these positions however, Joy gleefully plunges into the midst of this split, making it his playground.
In most of his works, Joy appears as both the author of the story and a character in it, and the continually shifting and blurred line between these two Camden Joys becomes a driving force in his prose, along with the unstable distinction between autobiographical and fictional worlds. In his first novel, The Last Rock Star Book (subtitled Liz Phair: A Rant) Joy conflates the rock star Liz Phair with a possibly imaginary ex-girlfriend named Liz; in his second novel, Boy Island, he writes about the career of a fictional character named Camden Joy in the real-life rock band Cracker. Three more recently-issued novellas, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, Pan and Palm Tree 13, superimpose Camden Joy’s real life onto fictional bands.
All right. Having done my best to make clear some inkling of the general state of things in Mr. Joy’s work, on to the specific:
Lost Joy is a miscellaneous collection of Camden Joy’s writings, many of which have previously seen only a limited circulation (the promotional blurb claming that each of the pieces in this book has been “lost” is a considerable exaggeration, given that some of these stories have been published in places like McSweeney’s and the Village Voice.) These works include essays, short stories, manifestos, and the text of posters that Camden Joy has for years been pasting on random city walls.
If there’s a unifying theme that binds this collection together, it’s that of personal isolation – the isolation of the perpetually misunderstood, the perplexed loneliness of having found, say, a brilliant album that no one else has heard of or appreciates – punctuated by brief moments of almost transcendental connection. In CJ’s world, of course, these connections usually occur via, or at least set to, music. He writes: “Sometimes when I am blue, the best medicine in the world is hearing a stadium hit recognized by millions… and feeling connected, for approximately five minutes and thirty one seconds, like we are all in this together.”
To be honest however (and this is a difficult sentence for me to write, since more than anything I want to urge the reader to run, not walk, to the nearest independent bookstore and buy something by Camden Joy), Lost Joy can’t be counted as his best work (that title still goes to Liz Phair) largely because the quality of this collection is more than a little uneven. A number of these pieces, in particular the “ephemera” that first appeared in poster form, is material that only die-hard Camden Joy fans will appreciate. At the same time, several of the longer stories in this book – like “Dum Dum Boys,” “The Greatest Record Album Ever Told,” and “My Life in Eighteen Songs” – unquestionably rank among Camden Joy’s best writing. In these pieces, his prose reveals a stylistic radiance and personal immediacy that is nothing less than breathtaking. Describing a high-school sweetheart, for example, he writes:
“Oh Marie, incessantly I kick across toys that take me back to you. Where have you fled, small-wristed creature? No more can you be found lobbing ping-pong balls at the goldfish bowls, pulling up fillings of bubble gum and banana taffy as the ferris wheel blurs its landing lights against the sooty ambers and oranges that make up our sunsets. Are you lost in the madhouses of furrow-browed adults? Whose handlebars do you ride now, troubled one? I remain devastated still from the final day of class, and your family was moving away that summer, and the smell of blazing asphalt overcame me, in the volleyball courts by the woodwind shack, as we dismantled our school clarinets, shaking out the spit and weeping forever goodbyes, desires unspooling from great heights like full rolls of toilet paper tossed from rooftops.”
In our self-conscious times, there are few writers other than Camden Joy who are capable of pulling off this kind of unabashed sincerity without seeming melodramatic or exhibitionistic.
Despite the occasional failings of Lost Joy, this collection still contains some of the finest rock writing, and some of the finest short stories, to be published in recent memory. Readers who are already acquainted with Camden Joy’s work will delight in this opportunity to revisit the earliest stages of his career as an artist and witness a writer working in his native short form; those who haven’t yet experienced the joys of Mr. Joy will certainly appreciate much of this collection, but may wish to start with one of his novels or novellas first.
Mr. Joy’s book is available for purchase at Powell’s.
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.