||A Review of: The Radiant City
by Ingrid Ruthig
The shimmering surfaces of urban landscapes and the reality of their
gritty substrate seem to have left their mark on Montreal-born
writer Lauren B. Davis. Her well-received first novel, The Stubborn
Season, rooted itself in the thinly masked prejudices, madness, and
turmoil of Toronto during the Great Depression. Her second novel,
The Radiant City, finds purchase in Paris-a city that, to the
bedazzled visitor, radiates the light' mythologized in recent
history. Yet for the displaced survivors of the world's horrors who
try to make a new life there, it proves more danger zone than haven.
The novel centers around Matthew Bowles, a freelance war correspondent
struggling with post-traumatic stress following an incident in
Hebron that shattered more than one life. When he's released from
an Israeli hospital, scarred and still in shock, he forfeits
certainty, his work, a long-term relationship, and his vision of
himself as a good man. He needs money, so he accepts a New York
publisher's advance to write his memoir. In Paris, "a good
city to be fucked up in," he discovers that his demons paralyze
him, and surviving another day is all he can manage. "People
think that if it is true, what he and others like him have to say
about the world, then the world is too horrible, too terrifying to
continue living inHe weeps for a long time, and when he is done he
reaches for the sleeping pills he keeps handy and takes more than
Matthew reconnects with an old colleague-a sometime mercenary and
photographer, Jack Saddler, who describes himself as "a
deranged-[Vietnam] Vet-ex-con-war-junkie with a drinking problem."
Saddler's chutzpah once saved their lives in Kosovo. Teaming up
again with Jack leads Matthew down a booby-trapped' path that
entwines his life with the lives of other walking wounded: New York
ex-cop Anthony who sports a metal plate in his head; Suzi, a
track-marked French prostitute hell-bent on finding relief from the
pain of losing her daughter; and Saida, whose diminished family
fled death in Lebanon only to drift apart while running a caf near
Matthew's apartment. These people all know about "lugging a
sack of skulls."
In the shadowy labyrinth of cosmopolitan Paris, each hopes to find
shelter and escape from guilt, loss, loneliness, and the mental
shellshock that continues to haunt them. However, no one new is
ever allowed to forget the differences between those who are at
home' here and those like themselves who have been uprooted with
little or no chance of going back. As a neighbour of Saida's remarks,
"You Arabsletting your children run the streets. Criminals and
drug addicts. It will be the death of France!'" Saida "worries
about her father, who has never found his way in this country, never
healed-as though anyone could-from the loss of so many family
members." According to Matthew, its builders made Paris a
"visually perfect jewel of a city so that as you go down for
the third time at least you have something beautiful to look at."
Beautiful prose is not what this book is built on; there is nothing
ornamental, frivolous, or pretty. Dazzling images are limited;
encapsulating insights are infrequent. Sentences, viewed individually,
generally don't warrant singular admiration or reconsideration.
Instead, the language that's utilized is straightforward, cutting
to the chase in journalistic fashion.
"They head along Saint-Germain, but as they walk they hear a
commotion of some sort ahead of them, and Matthew's skin tightens.
He glances at Jack who, frowning, peers over the heads of the
sidewalk crowd. There are voices, some shouting. Car horns. Someone
has a bullhorn. Matthew tries to make out the words and cannot."
But this is not to say that the sum of the parts leaves no lasting
impression. The writing communicates with precision and immediacy,
and has a cumulative impact.
"Paris disappears. He tastes dust. The world reduces to the
need to seek cover. He hears shots, people screaming, sees small
bursts of flame around him. He covers his head and crawls on his
elbows and knees, kicking out where he mustHe screams. Obscenities.
Loudly. Someone trips on him and he scrapes his knucklesHe wants
the noise to stop. Just make it fucking stop!"
Meticulous details are also part of the recipe to evoke a sureness
of place and time, even though there are moments when the lush
offering of directions seems less than crucial to the telling of
the story, when the step-by-step street names the characters encounter
are distracting and only highlight the author's ten years of
Nevertheless, it's difficult to put the book down. The gripping
cinematic progression is almost disconcerting-unable to turn away,
we become the literary equivalent of highway rubber-neckers slowing
to gawp at a tragic mess. Whether conjuring atmosphere or emotion
or ugliness, the fragmentation and bareness of the prose slices
past the wafer-thin charm of surfaces to reveal a deeper reality:
the truth of lives undone by violence.
Themes that take on topical issues often set off warning bells.
Even here, the temptation might be to respond: Sure, the potential
for violence stalks us at all times. Do we need to be shown yet
again that the world is a horrible place because of it?' Despite
fiction's capacity for prodding awareness, it can also become a
didactic finger poking foreheads hard. But Davis preserves the
personal human aspect. And therein lies another of the book's
strengths. This story doesn't delve so much into political conflict
as it does into conflict on the individual level: it focuses on the
blurred greyness between right and wrong, where a person can be
caught between us' and them'. And it forces us, along with the
fictional characters, to ask how to be in the world as it is: "I
wonder who's going to be good for us, Matt? Who are we going to be
good for?' Anthony walks away then, just like that, and the place
where he stood feels empty, a vacant spot in the shape of his
body." It's not really the place that makes the difference;
it's the person.
Matthew Bowles recalls how "light can blind as well as reveal.
It can save someone who wanders too close to an unseen edge, but
it can just as easily betray a person cowering in a hidden place."
The Radiant City reveals what's beyond the splendour of a setting
or the calm expression on a face. This is smooth, engaging writing
that doesn't flinch from the rawness that for so many people is
life. "Light is neutral and indifferent." We can't afford
to be. Perhaps that's the most important revelation of all.
Ingrid Ruthig is currently completing a manuscript of poetry, and
editing both a book of essays and an anthology of short poems. She
co-edits Lichen Arts & Letters Preview.