Nov 07, 07
Serious readers of literary fiction
Read in November, 2007
For a first novel, Radiant Days is a hell of an accomplishment. Michael Fitzgerald is a writer of both seriousness and serious talent. He deserves to be read.
On the back cover there is reference to Fitzgerald's MFA; but I'm overjoyed to report that Fitzgerald's work shows almost none of the scars of an MFA program. There's very little of the pathological cleverness, smug zaniness and "look at me I'm writing!" silliness that these programs seem to breed. Too often, the letters 'MFA' promise little more than inside-joke prose created solely for other MFA graduates.
For all its visits to the narrator's unrequited sexuality, Radiant Days is a novel that does not stop being serious. It is a novel whose writing took a lot of hard choices; when war is going on all round him and the narrator should probably be resorting to philosophical kitsch to show his readers how sensitive he is, Fitzgerald's narrator instead provides honesty: he's thrilled at the thought of having another try at bedding the woman who dragged him to Hungary.
As one reads this, he can almost imagine some literary critic - more concerned about his next cocktail party than offering a true critique of what he's read - carrying on about the "chilling dispossession" of contemporary Americans, that they can be thinking of only sex and drugs while people are dying. But that is a very real and true part of the American experience, and Fitzgerald nobly captures it.
If there was a part of the book that didn't thrill me, it was the beginning. We start at a party, and it felt so much like "The Swimmer" and a whole world that seems senselessly literary. Then there was the narrator's confession that he'd read little of Hemingway except biographies and A Movable Feast, and it made one worry about the rest of the novel - just how well Fitzgerald would be able to redeem his narrator's confession that he was more interested in being a writer than actually writing.
But redeem it he did. He did it with seriousness and honesty and a few interesting tricks, too. Here's perhaps the novel's most interesting sentence:
"She'd let me stand while she lay back on the bed and put her feet on my shoulders and let me move in below and her ass was rubbing against the top of my thighs and my memory was letting me almost feel the weight of her feet on my shoulders and I began to speed up."
There are also a number of very insightful observations about women and Europeans' general view of Americans. Fitzgerald has an English journalist named Marsh who provides many of these insights. At one point he says of the narrator's drug-using female obsession:
"People like her are the reason no one ever gets anything done. They smash things up and then retreat into their beauty."
That's a great truth. And it's an accomplishment to create a character who can say this in proper context and have it come out plausibly.
Finally, the reader is left turning pages quickly and admiring the novelist immensely by the end of this work. How much of this is autobiographical? is a question a reader is forced to ask of almost any story told in the first person, no matter how good that reader is.
Let us hope the answer, in Michael Fitzgerald's case, is: Not too much. This was a thoroughly well-constructed and enjoyable novel. I hope there are more to come.