Earlier this week, I had a discussion with a history professor about how we could help students better understand justice and war crimes. This professor exclusively readers non-fiction. She hates speculative fiction. The majority of what I read is fiction. We talked about how we could use examples of war criminals and discussion to try and help the students understand the tangled mess of ethics and realpolitik. But through the whole thing, all I could think about was a line from The Reader that helped me understand better than anything else I’d read. The conversation came back to me when I started reading Catherynne Valente’s new novel, Radiance. I don’t have enough superlatives to talk about this exploration of story and truth. The book is the most incredible thing I’ve read in a long time*.
One of the hardest things to teach students—literature or history students—is the concept that stories are constructed. The narrator is the one who chooses what we know and how we learn about it. As the narrator of Radiance‘s prologue puts it, “A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it” (23**). All of Radiance is obviously a construction. It’s made up of file footage narration, film (in text format), biographies, and other materials all pertaining to the life and disappearance of documentarian Severin Unck. Because the book is very blatant about this, we as readers have to think very carefully about what we’re being told. Characters lie and characters spin facts. On top of all this, some of the characters lie and spin to create a story that’s more “true” than the objective truth. All we can say for sure is that Severin disappeared while making a new documentary on Venus.
I love this question in stories. It’s easy to let a story wash over you—especially a book with such rich settings. One of the threads in Radiance puts this question at the forefront of the story. Percival Unck, Severin’s father, is a celebrated director. After she disappears, he feels he has to finish her story. It’s only fair because he filmed the first decade or so of her life. We get to see Percival and his collaborator try to tell Severin’s story through noir, gothic fantasy, fairy tale, and locked room mystery. Each time, he gives up because he can’t figure out a way to end the story. He gets a little closer to the “truth” with each iteration. (Personally, I think the fairy tale was the closest.) Even at the end of Radiance, when we’re given a few more clues, but I’m not sure I could say what happened to Severin.
What I can say about this book is that it’s a brilliant exploration of truth and truths and “truth”; it’s about the philosophy of story. One of the characters asks, near the end of Radiance, “Without an audience, it doesn’t exist. If a movie shows in a theatre and there’s no one to see it, does it make a sound?” (417). Just as the prologue narrator says, story comes to life only when you have a creator and a character and an audience. It’s alchemy and I love thinking about the magic of story.
Not only did I have the challenge of trying to figure out what was happening through all the layers, I also had the wonderful experience of traveling through an alternate version of the solar system. The solar system in Radiance is what all the astronomers and dreamers of the Victorian age imagined. Instead of bare rocks or seas of ice or gas as they are in our universe, the planets here are full of exotic flora and fauna. There are dragons and lizards that speak Mandarin and lilies that grown on Pluto. There are whales the size of islands that play a mysterious part in the events of the plot—more than I could have predicted from the beginning of the book.
Radiance is now on a short list of books that felt tailor-made for my tastes and interests. There are silent movies and strange, new worlds. There are narrative layers and unanswerable questions. Radiance turns the idea of story inside out and on its head in a way that I absolutely adored. Radiance kept me up past midnight twice, but I still wanted to ration it so that it would last longer. Now that I’m done, I have to wait (impatiently) for another novel from Valente.
* When I gushed about this book online, I got retweeted by the author. I am so happy.
** Quotes are from the 2015 kindle edition by Tom Doherty Associates.