by Morgan on May 18, 2011
Mark Perdue, or as he prefers to think of himself, “Mark Perdue,” used to be a superstar physicist; now he’s a mediocre Berkeley professor losing his acuity to Lyme disease, a “dead weight” of a man floundering around in the queasiness of middle-age. His wife, the former lawyer, is now a scary whirlwind of depression as a result of aborting a diseased fetus, while his teenage daughter, Carlotta, the “family weather vane,” is also mourning the loss of her brother-to-be, holing up in her bedroom researching boarding schools across the country.
Things seem to be at a breaking point, indeed Mark feels that, “a kind of hand inside his chest was just slipping its first gentle but businesslike grip over his heart,” when he decides to take Carlotta to Los Angeles for a “Celebrity Fantasy Vacation,” the brochure promising renewed confidence for even the meekest of teenagers. There they meet Blythe, their impossibly intriguing “escort” for the weekend, with whom Mark is both thrilled and terrified to get stuck when Carlotta disappears into the Hollywood Hills with her new insta-boyfriend, a proselytizing paraplegic with an annoyingly self-assured cadence, and punishing upper-body strength. Adventure ensues.
So that’s the “plot” of the “novel” Radiance by “Louis B. Jones,” a book less about life than it is about the story of our life as we tell it to ourselves while we’re living it.
“Mark Perdue” is the narrator and protagonist of Mark Perdue’s life, and like all good characters, he’s meticulously fleshed out, carefully crafted. For Mark, life, much like novels, is always on the brink of chaos, of meaninglessness. The only way to ward it off is by sticking to the story you’re telling, therefore proceeding in such a way that the life of “Mark Perdue,” as he’s living it, is pushed forward in a safe, logical and cohesive way.
But of course, the reality of stories is that in order to be interesting, there needs to be drama. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Mark notices how quickly this group of people (wannabe-famous teenagers and their parents) are, like him, able to affix labels to each other. All in the name of amping up the drama. “There’s no way to fight the melodrama; it’s so widespread it can’t be grabbed anywhere. Everybody knows it’s fictive, but everybody goes along with it.”
And what’s more melodramatic than a love affair? That’s why this particular story needs Blythe. As in all sensible narratives, Mark needs to make character assumptions about her in order to fit her into the scope of his story.
“The secret of Blythe Cress’s power and allure here in this place, in her life, was that she didn’t want anything — and had never wanted anything — but by a trick of lowering all standards and expectations, she had stayed inert in the world and after college she’d gone basically nowhere.”
Of course, Mark knows nothing about Blythe’s ambitions, goals, nothing about her own narrative. He’s just met her. But that doesn’t matter: he’s the narrator. His overwriting of Blythe’s story with his version of it is some of the funniest writing in the novel:
“And Blythe had some kind of boyfriend, named Rod, whom she’s mentioned as early on and as often as possible. ‘Rod’ owned a used-record store. And he played the pedal steel guitar. So a whiff of marijuana or something came off of ‘Rod’ — though not off of Blythe, curiously. Or, if not marijuana, just a shared dedication to a low-goal life. The whole setup made an affair unthinkable, fortunately.”
Unthinkable because of Mark’s character. “All that languor of hers this weekend was draped before him for the taking. Nevertheless, he was still — he was always — ‘Mark Perdue.’” Mark Perdue, Berkeley physicist with the semidetached in Cobble Hearth Village Estates, the assigned parking space, “the monthly checks to Countrywide Home Loans.” Whereas, Blythe “had graduated from Risdie, so her home, in that industrial area, would be one of those arty lofts with vast spaces, Persian rugs, a cappuccino machine.”
It’s easy, of course, to read Mark as a rich conservative asshole, especially as he’s describing LA from the car window as a continuous loop of “local crime-scene footage,” but really, he’s just playing his character. Fish out of water. If he wasn’t, the story wouldn’t make sense of course. To readers, and so to Mark as well, people only make sense in their context — Blythe in Los Angeles in her Subaru, Mark in Berkeley in his office — and any attempt to understand them outside of the things and routines of their lives is futile. Because we are that stuff, “We’re all doomed to our own singular, unrepeatable lives.” And so to learn something about Mark, we need to see him out of context.
The tension between Mark and Blythe’s undeniable attraction, (compounded by the increasing distance he feels from his aggrieved wife) and the necessity of maintaining narrative equilibrium, makes for some thoroughly good writing. But I think the most interesting part of Mark’s weekend-long journey is his rapidly evolving understanding of his daughter. Jones depicts the perfectly torturous blend of terror, wonder, pride and agony that befalls the father of a teenage girl.
In fact, Carlotta may be the only person whose feelings Mark can feel, as opposed to assume; the only person to whom he extends a free pass for complexity and true humanity, while still endlessly writing her character.
“He really believed that her present drama of grief, over the deleted little brother, was a cover-up for her worse dread. Teenagers’ dread is their discovery of personal irremediable defects and second-rateness. In high school you present yourself to the marketplace. You hadn’t been aware there was a marketplace. That’s the terrible open floor. You enter through the main entrance. You’re suddenly out on that floor. On schoolday mornings he would drop her off on the curb and he could see it descend upon her, at the moment of her climbing to set foot in those corridors, he could it it in the set of her shoulders: her irremediable defects and second-rateness.”
Over the weekend, as Mark gets pulled toward Blythe, and Carlotta is pulled toward her own opposite in the paraplegic hottie, Mark can’t help, under the glare of big city lights, but start to see his daughter out of context, and to meditate on her emerging powers.
“Mark sometimes got the irrational feeling that she knew he didn’t really understand gauge symmetry and was avoided in the department corridor, knew by her inborn radar, the ovarian radar, not the specific facts, just the doom in his aura when he came in the door at night from his Berkeley commute.”
He also fears that she senses his feeble, pathetic, pointless crush on Blythe, emboldening her to start speaking to him in a new way.
“A child’s using the f-word, before her parent, is a calculated form of histrionics ordinarily, but at this moment he found, in his own sixteen-year-old daughter, he admired such language and magisterial. At least she would make her way in the world, spoiled girl.”
So while we have the inevitable “story” here, of father and daughter on a fated weekend trip to a strange place that will change both of them, and their relationship, forever, what makes Radiance truly unique is that the most important character is never born. Nod, as the aborted fetus had come to be known in the family, is the question that haunts and hunts them, always, everywhere: an omnipresent horror. He pulses in the middle of the family like a black hole, as the three of them orbit around each other, trying not to get sucked in.
In some way, every other question comes back to this one: did they make the right choice? Even in the throes of lust, Nod hovers:
“The way she dimly, trustingly poked at the ignition, it was fetching, it was seductive, her passivity; this woman’s endless mystic torpor could take over his male soul. In his heart, everything was revokeable. He was already dead, watching all this from an afterlife. And so he was mute, and couldn’t speak out, at least not anything of the truth, brimming with it. He, Mark, he was the only ‘pervert’ right now, seeing her through his peephole for these three days as a visitor. He was definitely here in Los Angeles in the company of a young women he could sleep with at will — rather than (for example!) home diapering and sedating a baby who is paralyzed, blind, retarded, hopeless. That trade-off — the bona fide legitimacy of it — grants a fantastic buoyancy in the L.A. night in a parking lot, a buoyancy that is an entitlement completely legal and lawful and aboveboard, for a man who has the smarts and integrity not to literally sleep with her in the end.”
While Carlotta and her mother are still struggling with the decision to abort, Mark’s “redemption” comes from his assertion (prompted, hilariously and poignantly, by the paraplegic rock star) that in the end, they did the right thing.“The truth is, a physicist and a lawyer are worth more than a paralyzed, retarded, blind baby, and that’s an objective social fact you have to take responsibility for.”
Mark takes responsibility for his character. Stories have to make sense. If the characters spend 200 pages proving themselves, you can’t have them go berserk in the last ten. Likewise, if you’ve spend 40-odd years being “Mark Perdue,” you can’t just go to Los Angeles and sleep with a sexy art appraiser. If a narrator doesn’t take responsibility, lets the story or the characters slip off the rails, one gets an inkling of how meaningless it all really is. Mark knows this.
“In a way, one is already dead. Already dead-and-in-heaven, while living it all. That was the secret he knew. And that secret, it too was another thing that had always held him together. That perspective.”
As Mark sees it, the only way, really, to keep living, is to write the story. He feels the melodrama and meaninglessness of his life, but he bores through it, making logical plot decisions and solidifying his character, and this philosophy is a no-brainer. It’s his lifesaver. So ubiquitous that he’s able to remind himself, even in the clutches of a seriously intense interaction with Blythe, that, “In some sense it was possible that this conversation ‘wasn’t really happening.’ In the sense that it would be filed under irrelevant. Or filed under preposterous. Or filed under nonactionable. Mark’s whole personal future lay ahead of him. And you only keep what’s relevant.”
And there’s Novel Writing 101: keep only what’s relevant. Every word of this short novel is relevant. Brilliant, actually.