The City of Your Final Destination
Peter Cameron’s fourth novel begins as if it will be yet another self-conscious, postmodern contemplation of the worlds of literature and academics, full of arcane allusions and games- playing. It turns out, however, to be something quite different: an unsentimental yet moving look at the ways love, identity, and destiny intertwine.
An Iranian raised in Canada, Omar Razaghi is a graduate student in literature at the University of Kansas who receives a fellowship to write a biographical study of novelist Jules Gund, a native of Uruguay. Omar has told the fellowship committee he has been granted cooperation by Gund’s estate, but in fact, such approval has been denied. Without access to the writer’s papers and interviews with his family, Omar cannot possibly create a biography. A passive fellow, Omar is willing to give up and take his punishment for lying, but his girlfriend Deirdre, a fellow student, nags him into going to Uruguay to confront the novelist’s literary executors.
The biography is not opposed by Gund’s elderly brother Adam, who lives on the family estate with his lover Pete, a young Thai he has rescued from a life of prostitution in Germany. Adam is outnumbered, however, by Caroline, Gund’s widow, who claims her husband told her he wanted no biography, and by Arden Langdon, the writer’s mistress and mother of his only child, the eight-year-old Portia. Arden, an American who met Gund while taking his class at the university in Montevideo, feels that an artist’s work should speak for itself. Typical of Cameron’s subtle, understated approach is the lack of any hint that anyone sees anything unusual about a man’s wife, mistress, and illegitimate child living together after his death. Likewise, no reason is given for Gund’s suicide.
Caroline and, especially, Arden gradually soften toward Omar, with the latter developing romantic feelings for the exotically handsome youth. This sympathetic view grows after an unfortunate accident. Helping Pete pick peaches, Omar is stung by a bee, falls, and is temporarily paralyzed. (Nature’s indifference to man is one of several minor themes running through the novel.) Deirdre is summoned, and feelings of jealousy arise between her and Arden. Meanwhile, the incapacitated Omar has time to reflect upon what he truly wants to do with his life.
The City of Your Final Destination is essentially about character, mood, and style; the plot and any thematic content are almost afterthoughts. Cameron is concerned with setting up a situation that most readers will expect to go in one direction, only to take it into unexpected areas as the characters discover truths about themselves.
Omar progresses from a timid, uncertain careerist to a more mature, if still unsettled man not afraid to take chances. Initially, Deirdre must take control because Omar cannot. She wants to prevent him from becoming “one of those professors who are always wandering around the halls searching for their office with egg salad spilled down their front.” He has long planned the Gund biography but has somehow never gotten around to learning Spanish. Omar is a danger to himself. In care of his Kansas landlady’s dog, he not only misplaces it but steps into quicksand while searching for the animal.
When Arden suggests he is using flattery as part of his strategy, Omar replies, “If I had a strategy, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.” Admitting he is cowed by reality, he promises to “behave like a normal person for as long as I possibly can.” Meeting resistance from the executors, he impulsively says he no longer intends to write a standard academic biography and then tries to understand why he would say such a thing. Cameron does not, however, intend Omar—or any of the other characters, for that matter—to be seen as neurotic. Omar is just uncertain of his goals, slightly adrift.
He becomes, briefly, physically paralyzed but is always emotionally and even intellectually paralyzed, a bit like nineteenth century novelist Henry James’s international travelers. Displacement is a major theme of The City of...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)