(‘Radiance’ by Catherynne Valente, 2015, Tor Books)
“It is almost like being a god. We create what it is to be human when we stand fifty feet tall on a silk screen.”
Radiance is a dream. A lush, saturated, uneasy dream. And a remarkable novel. Remarkable in that it’s so different from anything else I’ve read. I was a little frustrated by the story in the end, but the world, the universe? I’m never letting it go.
It’s a difficult story to explain. It’s a mystery, mostly; what you yearn to uncover is the disappearance of Severin Unck and her film crew. Led by the ever illustrious and imaginative Catherynne Valente you traverse a parallel universe where every planet in the solar system is habitable, where each is a miraculous, mythological, impossible world of it’s own. In this world Thomas Edison sits on the patent for sound in movies, so silent films are the norm – those are the types of movies Severin’s father makes. Severin herself does documentaries. In a lot of ways this is a documentary about her life, pieced together from whatever scraps whoever is writing it could find and scrape together. It’s original and I loved how Valente uses different genres. My favorite part is the world she describes, for that alone I wish you’d read it.
I really, really liked it. But the problem, the reason I didn’t love it immediately, is it worked a little too hard at being pretty, and not enough at having a story to tell, which is not a fair statement really, because there is a story; the mystery of the disappeared Severin Unck, and in many ways, and for many people, I feel it’ll be a satisfying one. I simply felt we were constantly circling the story; never quite getting to it. It’s not a continuous story, though, each chapter takes a different form, some are movie scripts – from Severin’s movies, from her father’s movies, from her father’s personal videos – some are recordings from an interview, some are newspaper columns, some are… I don’t know, they read like chapters from a proper book, but that’s not it. This book is a mashup, it’s a tribute to genres of films, literature, and art. And it works very, very well.
Radiance is a story about telling stories. It’s the story other people have told of Severin disappearing, not the actual story of Severin disappearing. It’s about how everything is staged, to some degree; even documentaries aren’t honest depictions of what happened, everything always has a perspective, someone telling the story, someone cropping the picture. And everyone tells it different, everyone tells it with a different beginning and ending, everyone’s got a different point to make. It’s about the comfort we find in stories, the way they shape our universe, how they can be both devastating and beautiful. They can show us cruel truths and gentle lies. It’s about storytelling – about movies, in particular.
Valente’s universe is glorious. Imagine a parallel universe where we’ve advanced enough technologically to travel to other planets in the solar system (they’re a lot closer here than in our real world). A world where we inhabit planets, but are still stuck in the 20s. The aesthetic of such a universe is gorgeous, and Valente describes it perfectly. Every planet is its own sparkling world of possibility. Pluto is gothic, with a bridge of flowers connecting it to its moon, Venus is wrapped in twilight, a day as long as a year, and so on. The care and effort Valente has put into the universe she presents is astounding. More than anything this book is worth reading for the world it creates in your mind. It’s beautiful, but a decadent beauty, one that maddens and corrupts, but also invigorates. A universe so open, so friendly, so staggeringly fantastical, it’s almost too good to be true.
“When I looked upon that new world, splendid in every way and in every way terrible, I looked upon a tiger with stars falling from his striped tongue. I looked and saw my true bridegroom, but would it also be my grave?”
Being in it was a pleasure. I didn’t always care much for the story itself, but I loved the mixing of genres, I loved the imitated Hollywood-setting on the moon, I loved the idea and the world. But I never cared much for any of the characters, perhaps because what we’re given is imagined versions of them. It was difficult to get a grasp on the real Severin, or the real Anchises, because they were always seen through a lens, through someone’s imagination. They didn’t seem real to me, like people I should care about. I felt extremely detached from the story because of it.
I felt the story worked best when nothing was staged, when we saw the real characters, without any sort of filter, unfortunately that didn’t happen very often. But thinking back on it now a while after finishing it, I’m filled with love. It was a good read. And the aesthetic it provides has lodged itself in my soul and refuses to leave. It mixes mystery, film noir, Old Hollywood, romance, philosophy, children’s stories, radio plays and documentary storytelling, and there are enough mysteries and secrets to uncover that I wanted to keep going. Sometimes it got a little too flowery with the descriptions, a little too honeyed and exaggerated, but that’s part of it (as someone else has stated, it’s The Great Gatsby in space), and the vision? Breathtaking. I’ll repeat: it’s worth reading for the world it creates and the images it provides alone.
Valente remains one of my favorite authors, and this book is no exception to her skill. Her worlds always catch me by the heart and refuse to let go. If you want something you’ve never read before, a world you’ve never seen, Radiance is what you need.
Ps. I recently learned there’ll be a new cover for the paperback, and it’s gorgeous. I slightly regret getting the hardback now, although it’s very pretty as well. But I mean, look at this paperback cover, I want it: