A preface from the reviewer: Those who know me on Tumblr (or from the bar) are privy to my bias against suburban, domestic fiction. The minutiae of bored people facing the pressures of childrearing and their own mortality have never been my cup of tea, even when magnificently depicted. I have an admitted preference for things that are, well, a little out there.
Louis B Jones’s latest, Radiance, however, held my attention its entire 219 pages. Jones manages to be microscopically domestic and cosmic at the same time, detailing mundane life with such wonder, insight and lyricism, the reader is amazed she never thought of it that way.
With Radiance, Jones brings back dumb-luck-prone physicist Mark Perdue from his second novel Particles and Luck (a 1993 New York Times notable book). Forty-two-year-old Mark was once a sensation in his field, now leading a sweet, resigned, life in a Marin County condo with his wife Audrey and teenage daughter, Carlotta. Between the loss of his wunderkind momentum and the long term cognitive effects of Lyme disease, Mark’s career is on the wane, leaving him a tenured mascot in the Berkeley physics department with dwindling respect and class load.
Over the course of a single weekend, we find the Perdue family coping with a recent domestic tragedy in their own ways: former power-attorney Audrey builds Habitat for Humanity houses, the chronically eye-rolling Carlotta is set up on a “Celebrity Fantasy Vacation” in LA, Mark skips the big physics conference in Germany to accompany her. Amid the contrivances of the vacation package, wherein teenagers are treated as performing “celebrities” for the weekend (“Musical talent not required” the brochure promises), Mark develops a mutual infatuation with their vacation guide, Blythe. Meanwhile, Carlotta’s adolescent affections turn toward paraplegic drummer and teenage philosopher Bodie Lostig, who at once keys into the underlying tragedies of Western, commercial existence and annoys the hell out of everyone.
Though as much detail is devoted to Mark’s home base in Northern Cal, Los Angeles is vivisected and defended by Jones’s expansive phrasing. The sad scene of “the same chain stores…starting to appear every few miles, recycling past-a Taco Bell, a Gap, a Kentucky Fried, a Blockbuster Video-then further on, a Taco Bell, a Gap, A Kentucky Fried, another Blockbuster-so the neighborhood stays roughly similar, similarly consumable everywhere…” is counterpointed with the delightful Blythe’s loyalty to her hometown, her earnest admonishment: “Don’t make fun of Los Angeles.”
Beyond a hike in the hills and an encounter with the LAPD, little happens in this novel. Jones maps Mark’s fragile life with tenderness, and the cast’s foibles, though unresolved, are illuminated and exalted. He lays out for us how strange and confusing it is to be alive and how difficult it is to do so harmlessly. Bodie’s invectives against the casual violence with which humans treat the planet are true, but the hot air of the boy’s preaching show them for what they are: the rants of a child discovering the concept of unfairness. At mid-life, Mark accepts most injustice in stride, even that of his own death as it is thrust into the foreground several times during the narrative.
I finished Radiance not knowing if I should feel empty, relieved, or both. Which I believe was the point. The love and scorn inspired for these unremarkable people is incredibly gratifying. Each character is ingeniously captured, particularly Carlotta, the smart 16-year-old struggling with the cognitive and emotional mess of adolescence. The touching hilarity of an anti/climactic scene between Mark and Blythe shows Jones’ bittersweet sense of being human, that “So blessedly weak is a man’s heart that meaninglessness is his constant rescue.”