Friday, January 22, 2016

Radiance - Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance is a book about many things. About the way people portray each other in film. About the way narrative shapes the world, in front of and behind a lens. About murder. About a sprawling solar system full of thriving life. About the mutability and debatable desirability of truth. And each reading gives another layer of meaning to the text, and opens up the story just a little more. It’s really rather good.

Radiance’s universe is a fusion of classical sci-fi worlds; the solar system is filled with habitable planets, from a verdant Venus to a frozen, gothic feeling Neptune. It’s to the author’s credit that each of these locales feels plausible, but also a blend of the human and the alien, surreal plates in a dark room not under the reader’s control.  The prose that wraps the narrative is essentially a story in itself. The tale is told through different sources – diary entries, film strips and interview transcripts. This provides a string of different viewpoints, and makes each more unreliable. This is heightened by the use of a narrative within the narrative – a film which purports to retell the best possible version of the story, which switches effortlessly between genres. There are sections written as noir, others as a fairy tale, others as a cosy murder mystery. It’s an exceptional feat that each of these sections not only works as a piece of fiction for their particular genre, but that their manner of existing, their way of telling the tale, also affects the way the audience perceives it. We’re looking in at a story in flux, and the way that the story is presented is, in itself, a key part of the story.

There’s a swathe of characters here, living across the entire first half of this alternative twentieth century. They have a certain sense of remoteness to them, once again feeling like they’re viewed down a camera lens. The reader is shown the masks that people wear, and the subtext, the connections between events, across decades, with characters shifting relationships, is left to the reader to infer, to tease from the strands of the provided tale, and form into something new. I’m still not sure I know these characters, but each of them lives in the text, and through their artefacts, they seem perhaps more real than they might if presented directly.

The nominal plot surrounds the search for a missing documentarian, daughter of a film studio. There’s a swirl of threads around this apparently mysterious disappearance. The reasons gradually become clear – or at least clearer – over the course of the text, but a lot remains opaque, occluded by the distance of the sources, and by the need for each character to put their own spin on the story. There’s a solid surface mystery here, which may get answered to the reader’s satisfaction – but it’s got another set of skins beneath ; you can read the shapes of myth and legend between the quiet spaces in the words, or catch the dissolution of a family in a stray whisper, hastily scribbled on a diary page. There’s a lot to go through here – the prose is lyrical, dense, and seems to come with several meanings attached to each word.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. It’s shockingly clever stuff. You can take it as written, and it’s still a stunningly imaginative piece of work. But there’s depths here as well, which elevate it to a new level of experience. At the end of the day, it’s an intelligent piece of work, in a very original space, with a structure, characters and a plot which are utterly intriguing, and a thoroughly rewarding read.

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