Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What I Read: Radiance

This was a selection for Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I picked it up on a whim from SF Bokhandeln when I was out during Kulturnatt because I'm weak (and because it was constantly checked out of the library).

This gif is turning up in a lot of my reviews recently.
If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be "overindulgent." The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (Did I only read that in January? Jesus, it feels like ages ago. The political climate really is aging us in dog years.) There is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but it all works to move the story forward. Could everything in the documentation have been written as narrative? Yes, probably, but the documentation is actually a pretty efficient way to set up the later events of the story. Conversely: every single scrap in there contributes something to the story.

I'll be real: I think I skipped about half of Radiance and yet that did not affect my understanding of what actually happened. Life is too short to keep reading books you don't enjoy; I find skimming to be an acceptable compromise when you want to know what happens but don't want to sift through a bunch of nonsense. I quickly sorted out the bits of Radiance that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy skimming.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente's writing is, as another reviewer put it, "high-octane purple prose." It's overwrought, it's too much, and while I get it's supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it's a bit much everywhere. Most tedious of all were the screenplays. Take, for example, the first extract from the "White Pages" section of the book (that is, very early on); the following quotes are taken from what's given as the "action" portion of any given screenplay. 

Open on the pristine streets of sunny Moscow, lined with popsicle-carts, jugglers, dazzled tourists. The streetlamps are garlanded with lime-blossoms, sunflowers, carnations. The joyful throng crowds in fierce and thick; the camera follows as they burst into Red Square. The splendid ice-cream towers of the Kremlin beam down benignly. The elderly TSAR NICHOLAS II, his still-lovely wife, and their five children, hale in their glittering sashes, wave down at the cannoneers standing at attention on the firing pad at the 1944 Worlds' Fair. The launch site is festooned with crepe and swinging summer lanterns, framed by banners wishing luck and safe travel in English, Russian, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Arabic.
So far so good, right? But then it continues.

SEVERIN UNCK and her CREW wave jerkily as confetti sticks to their sleek skullcaps and glistening breathing apparatuses. Her smile is immaculate, practiced, the smile of the honest young woman of the hopeful future. Her copper-finned helmet gleams at her feet. SEVERIN wears feminine clothing with visible discomfort and only for this shot, which she intends, in the final edit, to be ironic and wry: She is performing herself, not performing herself in order to tell a story about something else entirely. The curl of her lip betrays, to anyone who knows her, her utter disdain of the bizarre, flare-skirted, swimming-cum-trapeze-artist costume that so titillates the crowd. The wind flutters the black silk around her hips. She tucks a mahogany case—which surely must contain George, her favorite camera—smartly under one arm. All of her crewmen strap canisters of film, a few steamer trunks of food, oxygen tanks, and other minor accouterments to their broad backs. The real meat of the expedition, supplies and matériel meticulously planned, acquired, logged, and collected, was loaded into the cargo bays overnight. What Severin and her crew carry, they carry for the camera, for the film being shot of this film being shot.
It's hard to imagine 90% of this being included in any actual screenplay. Take, for example, The Matrix:

The hotel was abandoned after a fire licked its way across
the polyester carpeting, destroying several rooms as it
spooled soot up the walls and ceiling, leaving patterns of
permanent shadow. 
We FOLLOW four armed POLICE OFFICERS using flashlights as
they creep down the blackened hall and ready themselves on
either side of Room 303. 
The biggest of them violently kicks in the door --
The other cops pour in behind him, guns thrust before
Police!  Freeze! 
The room is almost devoid of furniture.  There is a fold-
up table and chair with a phone, a modem, and a Powerbook
computer.  The only light in the room is the glow of the
Sitting there, her hands still on the keyboard, is
TRINITY; a woman in black leather. 
Hands behind your head!  Now!  Do
She slowly puts her hands behind her head... 
The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a
bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know
they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs
and Trinity moves -- 
It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly
The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose
explodes, blood erupting.  Her leg kicks with the force of
a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty
pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop
farthest from her. 
Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the WALLS, flashlights
sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a
leather-clad ghost. 
A GUN still in the cop's hand is snatched, twisted and
FIRED.  There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and
when it's over, Trinity is the only one standing. 
A flashlight rocks slowly to a stop.

Is Valente deliberately writing something narrative-like in the guise of a screenplay as a means to play with form? Or does she think she's writing a good screenplay? It's impossible to tell! On the one hand, Valente should know the difference, if her biography is any indication; she says straight up in the acknowledgments that her father was a filmmaker. Yet as the book continues, it's clear that Valente really only has one writing mode, or is choosing only one mode for this story, and that is overwrought. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don't talk like that). So many people write breathlessly about Valente's amazing prose in reviews that I can't tell if I don't know what's good anymore, or if people are just confusing wordiness and faux-profundity with good writing. Maybe both?

There's another layer to Radiance, or at least there's supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it's conveying that it's impossible to care about any of the characters.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her no

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