Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance

I wish that I had liked Radiance better. My relationship with Catherynne M. Valente is strained: after loving the Orphan’s Tales duology, I couldn’t finish Deathless, and, on revisiting the Orphan’s Tales, I was utterly disenchanted. In general, I find her prose overblown and her metaphors to border on the nonsensical. In Radiance, she’s toned her prose down; indeed, the prose is the best thing about this book. My other complaints remain. Her characterization, as always, is shallow; the concern with stories and their telling overwhelms any actual plot; the fragments of the novel, which is told through a variety of screenplays, diaries, and other narrative devices, never cohere into a greater whole.

The core problem is that Severin Unck, the glamorous and mysterious figure at the novel’s heart, is not nearly glamorous or mysterious enough. She appears as a child in her father’s film reels and in memories, but she has no presence on the page; indeed, she seems to disappear even when she is present. If Radiance has a plot, it is the disappearance of and search for Severin Unck. It’s a shame, then, that it’s so hard to care about whether she’s found or not. There are other characters, among them Mary Pellam, who is to become one of Severin’s mother figures; Erasmo St. John, one of Severin’s lovers; and Anchises, another of Severin’s lovers. Almost all of these characters have more page time than Severin; none of them are more interesting.

Valente has always been concerned with stories – who tells them, what they are, how they determine reality. It’s an interesting theme, but it’s one of two or three in Valente’s work; at this point, she doesn’t have much to say about it that feels new. Yes, truth is what you make of it; yes, we define ourselves with stories; yes, “careful the tale you tell/that is the spell,” to quote that other noted fantasist of our time, Stephen Sondheim. All of these things are true, but it feels as though this is the only story Valente has to tell.

This story is told through a variety of documents. This is the most successful aspect of the novel; if it is about stories, it makes sense to have our view of the characters and plot filtered through the lens of fictional storytelling. That said, the goal of a splintered narrative is to have all the splinters come together at the end, like the reverse of a glass falling. In this case, the splinters stay far apart. There’s also an implausible revelation scene that seems utterly unnecessary; it’s a loss of control rather than the dreamlike feel she seems to have been trying for. There’s also a glitzyness to the narrative: it’s almost all surface, with no emotional core.

That being said, I enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit: it’s like a dream, in that it’s very beautiful and it doesn’t quite cohere. Still, her prose is very effective and often lovely:

There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers. We collect the pieces we can, obsessively assemble and reassemble them, searching for a picture that can only come in parts. And we cling to those parts. The parts that have been her. The parts that have been you. Your chest, your ribs, your knees. The place where her last image entered and stayed. We have tried to finish Percival’s work – to find the Grail, to ask the correct question. But in some version of the tale, Percival, too, must fail, and so must we, because the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.

If novels rose and fell on their prose alone, this one would certainly rise. But they don’t: I demand character and plot as well as prose, and Valente provides neither.

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