August 20, 2008

Let's Talk About Them Again: "Radiant Days," by Michael FitzGerald

You know what really bugs me about arts publications sometimes? I'll tell you what really bugs me about arts publications sometimes; that after that one time they'll give some great, thoughtful, wonderful, exciting recommendation to a book or movie or whatever, they never have the excuse to go back and ever revisit that project again, to maybe look one more time at why it's so great and maybe drum up a little more publicity for it as well. This is such an important thing in the underground arts in particular, after all, precisely because there is so little money available for traditional advertising; sales among basement presses rely an unusually high amount on simple word-of-mouth, and that word-of-mouth many times starts precisely at websites like CCLaP, where I will sometimes post a review that gets a bunch of people all talking (and purchasing) at once.

Radiant Days, by Michael FitzGerald

I was just thinking about the subject last evening, in fact; I was reviewing some old essays here at CCLaP (but more on that in a bit), came across one and was reminded of a book from last year that was such an unexpected treat to come across, Michael FitzGerald's sadly overlooked gem of a generation-definer Radiant Days, originally coming to my attention simply because Michael's a CCLaP reader, and one of the first to take me up on my liberal review policy here. Michael's book arrived at my place with almost no fanfare last summer, soon after opening CCLaP to begin with; and right off the bat, it simply blew me away, becoming one of only two of the 50 contemporary books I reviewed last year to get a perfect score of 10. (And the other one was the Pulitzer-winning The Road by Cormac McCarthy, so you know I'm not f-cking around.)

You'll of course want to read my original review of the book at a certain point, either right now or after you finish today's essay, to understand in detail why I liked the book so much to begin with, why it's such an astounding statement about my entire generation and these entire times. But here's maybe the more interesting question -- what's happened since that review? Well, for one, Michael and I have become occasional correspondents; we're around the same age, after all, share a lot of the same experiences and attitudes, so of course enjoy talking with each other every so often. One of the things he told me, in fact, about what he liked the most about CCLaP's review, was how I found it both a "big" story and a "little" one, of how impressed I was that he could tell the individual stories of these unique characters but also tell the tale of an entire generation. According to what he was telling me, this exact kind of thing is mostly frowned on by a lot of people in the academic community, the exact delicate award-winning MFA holders with no senses of humor who I just don't like very much in general (there, I said it); I guess it's poo-pooed among a lot of that crowd to strive for something as large and vast as a generation-defining tale, to want to write a story that's not only delicate and character-oriented but also tries to tell something grand too.

The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

And how funny that that community should think that, I realize now; because the essay at CCLaP I had been reading over last night had in fact been for F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, one of the first books I ever reviewed for the ongoing "CCLaP 100" series of essays about supposed classics. (I recently received a very nice email from a CCLaP reader about it, which is why I was checking it out for the first time in months and months.) And I realized last night, that even with Gatsby I had essentially argued the same thing that I had with Radiant Days six months previous; that both books tell not just interesting small tales about some unique, fascinating characters, but also give us a big clue of what those entire times were like, of how that generation of youth saw themselves, of what things going on in that time were influencing them the most.

And, I mean, c'mon -- Gatsby is one of the most read and well-loved novels of all time now! It's the literal book that coined the phrase "Great American Novel!" SHEESH! In fact, the more book reviews I write here, the more I'm realizing that all the best books throughout history all share this trait that is apparently so frowned-upon by a certain part of the academic community; all of these authors end up telling a tale bigger than themselves, in most cases precisely by not trying to write a grand tale at all, but simply wanting to be as universally understood as possible. As I mentioned in my original review, but maybe not as precisely, that's really the key to Radiant Days being so astounding; that exactly because FitzGerald keeps the storyline itself reigned in, because he keeps such a close eye on character like his mentors had been teaching him, he ends up with a sweeping, generation-defining tale like he does. What a sneaky lesson about the arts, huh? That those who yearn too much to tell a Grand Story will usually fail at it, precisely because they want it too much?

I was thinking about all of this last night, and I was thinking, "Geez, too bad I don't have an excuse to just get on the CCLaP website tomorrow and talk all over again about this remarkable novel, and how even though it's a year later you should still all be checking it out." And then I realized -- wait a minute. I own CCLaP. I can do whatever the hell I want. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! And since I had so much fun doing so today, I thought maybe I'd just turn it into a semi-regular feature, where every so often I look back again on a book that's a couple of years old, but that still needs your attention and support, that will still provide you with a phenomenal reading experience. Radiant Days is definitely such a book, and I hope all of you who have never heard of it will have a chance to check it out soon.

Read even more about Radiant Days: CCLaP's original review | Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:26 AM, August 20, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |