This review first appeared in Interzone #263. Apparently I have a longer version of it somewhere. So it might one day without warning expand its territory.
Radiance By Catherynne M. Valente
Corsair, pb, 432pp. £7.99
Radiance is an extravagant, plush, campy, melancholy, witty, sprawling, indefatigable work of great literaturepunk. Ingenues, aviator jackets, coconuts. It’s one those neo-epistolary novels, supposedly cobbled together out of diary entries, interview transcripts, radio scripts, commercials, showbiz gossip columns, even a ship’s manifest. Actually, at first it threatens never to repeat any of these forms, yikes! But eventually the pattern emerges, phew. The novel skips about in time too, though always driving towards a definite dénouement.
Radiance is also both alternate history sf – inasmuch as it mentions historical figures, like Robert Frost, doing totally non-historical stuff, like moving to Pluto – and it is sf set in an alternate reality. The solar system it depicts is a mostly nourishing and hospitable place. Pluto has lilies, and perhaps even a path in a yellow wood for Robert to write a poem about. Explorers of Radiance will probably likewise diverge two ways. Some, nurtured and entranced by Valente’s orchard orrery, will be able to metabolise their sustenance directly from her rambunctious prose. Others will need to stay inside their space-suits and – whether or not they admire the novel through their plexiglass – will reach the final page with a sense of relief that their air supply hasn’t run out.
Although the novel can be a bit blindingly dazzling, at its radiant heart is actually a fairly simple story. Indeed, it’s pretty much Valente’s 2009 short story, ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’. One main character, Severin Unck, grows up every bit as besotted with movie-making as her old man, celebrated director and all-round big shot Percival Unck. But whereas Percival is a pioneer and purveyor of melodramas – especially Gothic romances and hardboiled noir – from a very young age Severin shrinks from such shlock. “Papa. This is silly! I want only to be myself!” (p.53).
So Severin becomes a documentary-maker. With a hint of YouTube vlogger – not that there’s YouTube in Valente’s vision exactly, nor even that many talkies. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Severin’s studied and strategic approach to being ‘herself’ – like her dad’s imperious take(s) on ‘candid’ home video – as a metaphor for social media self-fashioning. During Severin’s childhood, Christmas present might require “three or four takes of Yuletide ecstasy” (p.23), rewrapping and unwrapping till daddy yells “wrap!” They may be decopunk icons, but Percival and Severin also act like proto millennials who’d sooner let their their sundaes melt and their sodas fizz flat before they’d upload sub-par Insta pics of them. But relegating such behaviour to scientific romance allows it to be de-normalized, so it carries an aura of majestic sorrow. Turns out it’s possible to yearn for a Golden Age of a somehow more authentic and broadminded narcissistic artifice. Shallow modern living ain’t what it used to be, hashtag majestic sorrow.
Severin’s ground-breaking ouevre earns critical accolades and popular adoration, and it moves in an increasingly investigative, politicised direction. Tragically, while visiting the site of an inexplicably obliterated Venusian settlement, Severin vanishes, while several of her crew come to grisly, somewhat body horror-ish ends. Severin’s depleted expeditionary force does get a top-up. The obliterated settlement’s lone survivor is a peculiar little boy called Anchises. Many years later, with Severin MIA and Anchises is all grown up. Percival Unck, still of course grief-stricken, seeks closure by making a film about both Severin and Anchises. Does Anchises perhaps hold the key to the whole catastrophe?
It’s the chapters of Unck’s film that gives Radiance most of its forward momentum. Unck and his screenwriter Vincenza Mako keep re-imagining the project, so the film mutates from genre to genre. Valente tends to signal genre shifts by piling stuff in rather than by keeping stuff out. Her prose is chameleon-like, but the chameleon is not really a chameleon. Whenever there’s an opportunity for something cool that would give away game – “hey! That chameleon is Chameleon M. Valente!” – she goes ahead and does it anyway. Unck’s film is not, à la Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the same thing told over and over, corkscrewtinized from many angles. It’s more like that improv theatre game where a single story unfolds, but switching genre, and therefore switching direction – without ever switching its director – as it goes.
Being so interested in rewrites, Radiance poses the question, could it have done with one more edit? It is touched with radiant brilliance throughout: the frames on a cinematic reel as multiverses, the wrap party where everyone is still a little in character, the buffalo that says ‘home’ at just the right moment. Splendid bits of worldbuilding – such as the film sets where everything and everyone has to be actually black-and-white – get rushed through the frame, before they can be milked too much. (Milking, by the way, is another major Radiance theme). But perhaps the novel could have been a little leaner, especially in the first fifth and the fourth fifth? No big cuts, just a final twirl of the wrench on all those linguistic cornucopias, tightening them into witty little spliffs?
It’s also terribly unfair of a reviewer to ask for more of something, especially of such a layered, multichannel work. You can’t just add new features to novels, free from opportunity cost and knock-on consequences. But I do feel like something that’s so grandly polyvocal misses a trick by not being a tidge more satirical, even a tidge more didadic. Maybe I’m alone there? The way to this reviewer’s heart is shoving something down his throat. But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating such a splendid echo chamber, it seems a shame not to yell something really loudly in it.
There is the obligatory reflection on storytelling. There’s a certain kind of story (maybe called postmodern, or metafictional) which, it’s often said, loves to draw attention to its status as artifice. This is the main gossip about metafiction: as per one classic The Streets track: “you’re fic but my gosh don’t you know it.” Like a lot of gossip, this is partly true and it can be useful. In some university classrooms, yell enough about breaking the fourth wall, maybe you’ll at least break the ice. But if any reader comes away from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, or Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – or Valente’s Radiance – with nothing more than the conviction that it was a story, then they’ve only learned something they already knew. Even if they gussy it up, as the insight that stories are important, or that stories are dangerous, or that we give form to the world by telling stories, I suspect it’s still something they really knew all along.
Radiance does find a few reasonable reasons to talk about its own construction, reasons that go beyond self-congratulatory bibliophilia. For instance, Valente plays around with aggressive forms of storytelling – advertising, propaganda, and official gossip – all a bit vintage, so their tricks can be exposed by time’s passage.
Also, the collision between metafiction and sff in itself is pretty intriguing. I think that when Radiance does its sff, it tends to tone the metafiction down. Chipper behemoths whose japes just might be stitching the whole cosmos together are a sort of sf literary trope. So is an offworld camp beset by horrific reality glitches. So is an exotic voyage culminating in ambiguous entanglement with the Divine. But although Radiance does these tropes very well, it doesn’t really celebrate them, subvert them, or waggle its zealously-tweezed 1930s brows in a way that suggests, ‘These tropes know these are tropes.’ Apart from the really pulpy sf, most of these elements are played sort of straight – aren’t they?
And then there’s the question of visual vs. verbal storytelling. How does this manage to be decopunk rather than dieselpunk? Is there perhaps a theme here of seeing something with your own eyes, but only because you’re told to see it? “Or like a whale,” says Hamlet, and Polonius answers, “Very like a whale.” The central role of cinema also complicates the book’s claim to be a bunch of found texts. If a chapter ‘is’ a piece of film, even though it’s words on the page, is it . . . a shooting script? A treatment? A description of the film Unck actually made? Something else?
And finally: Does Anchises Count As A ‘Character,’ Discuss.
But if I were a literary theory gossip hound, I might spread the opposite rumour about metafiction. Metafiction is fiction that has all but forgotten that it is fiction. It cares so little about its status as artifice, it doesn’t even bother trying to conceal it. Why bother, when it’s so busy with actually important things? Metafiction doesn’t ‘draw your attention’ to the way it’s constructed. It just leaves its constructed-ness lying out in the open, and trusts that you won’t be tempted to gawp too much, since there’s other great stuff to experience instead. It’s busy making you feel the presence of people who don’t exist, people like Severin, Anchises, Percival, and Mary. It’s busy raising your smiles, furrowing your brows, and jerking your tears. A voiceover in Christoffer Boe’s 2003 film Reconstruction puts it this way: “Remember, it is all film. It is all a construction. But even so, it hurts.”
If Severin creates realism about a fantasy world, Valence is also creating fantasy about the real world. Radiance is chockablock with allusions – a lot of Greek myth and Shakespeare especially, with plenty of Prospero the colonist, but barely a glimpse of Caliban – and there is rather crucial octopus-in-a-top-hat who must, I reckon, be a reference to the anonymous political cartoon of 1882, “The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters,” depicting a top-hatted and many-tentacled England grabbing for Boersland, Australia, Gibraltar, Cape Colony, Malta, Jamaica, Cyprus, and so on. Radiance reaches for innumerable influences. In a spirit of generosity, inclusivity and hybridity, it weaves them together. The godforsaken floweriness of the Gothic overlaps with the seen-it-all wisecracking of the hardboiled gumshoe, and so on. But perhaps what Radiance starts to suspect is that these links are not altogether serendipitous. They may be evidence that – somehow, in some sneaky, sidelong, unseelie fashion – cultural traditions that seem diverse are all complicit in one-and-the-same project of marginalisation, silencing, and erasure.
Which is why, by the end of the novel, the thing that’s more important than ‘how stories give form to worlds’ is ‘how empires destroy the form of worlds.’
Who is it that really destroys whole villages?
The word radiance refers to the light that spills into the camera lens, and it also implies vivacity, sparkle, joy, perhaps the sun’s plenitude. But the word has another connotation, expansion. The alternate universe of Radiance is all about a territory so vast, fruitful and unpeopled, that it can simply absorb all the imperial and commercial impulses of the late nineteenth century. Instead of going to war, the empires went to space. In other words, it’s just the kind of fantasy used by colonial powers to mask and excuse colonial atrocities. For instance, it’s is the Apartheid myth of the ‘empty interior’ that the Voortrekkers entered, magnified all the way to Pluto.
Radiance doesn’t really get round to breaking the silence of empire, it does at least witness its existence, and begin to try to understand the violence and cunning which sustains it.
So what more could you ask for? The giddiness, glamour, anxiety, optimism and nihilistic tinge of Old Hollywood? The Ars Gratia Artis, ‘art for art’s sake,’ that gives the growling MGM lion his kitty collar? Cowboys, Christmas, some puke, a whodunnit, space whales? If so, I have good news for you.