In Louis B. Jones’s new novel Radiance, Mark Perdue, a mildly depressed astrophysicist with Lyme disease, takes his daughter to L.A. for a weekend.
In his previous novels Ordinary Money, Particles and Luck, and California’s Over, Louis B. Jones proved to be one of the most skilled metaphor-makers around, unafraid to cinch potentially didactic or pulpy backdrops (physics, poetry, counterfeit money) to his lyrical prose, while revealing human insight in difficult packages. His latest novel, Radiance, his first since 1997, is no exception, and this time, the backdrop is Hollywood’s unreal celebrity culture.
Astrophysicist Mark Perdue (seen in a younger incarnation in Particles and Luck) takes his talented daughter Carlotta from their home in Marin County to Los Angeles so she can attend a “Celebrity Fantasy Vacation” and live like a rock star for a weekend. Perdue is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. On the tarmac to LAX, he suffers heart palpitations and thinks a heart attack might not be a bad way to go: an efficient solution. A tenured professor at UC Berkeley, Perdue was once the wunderkind, appearing in episodes of Nova (now easily searchable on YouTube) donning a wizard’s costume and dispensing astrophysical insights. But now his mental faculties are deteriorating from Lyme disease, and his marriage is floundering in the aftermath of a late-term abortion of an afflicted fetus the family has named Noddy.
In his daughter, Perdue sees radiance. Carlotta can sing, has star quality, the promising future he once had. But when she disappears into the Hollywood night with a handsome, Guru-esque paraplegic named Bodie, Perdue must find his daughter and overcome his adulterous yearnings for his media escort Blythe.
Jones is a master at detailing melancholy and tragedy without weighing down his prose. Take this winding passage in a scene where Perdue is on the phone with his wife Audrey, while in the company of Blythe:
His call had ended with some intimate old closing endearments that nailed, once again, how make-believe was any idea that he and Blythe, in Los Angeles, had any kind of genuine relationship at all. He shifted and tossed in his car seat as if to suppress, to sit on, the embarrassment. The endearments had been uttered plainly in Blythe’s hearing, just a pair of the usual married sweetnesses. In a way it was a good thing—it was worse than embarrassing; it was frankly degrading to Blythe as his temporary girlfriend—but it was a good thing if it set another seal on his faithfulness to his wife. Marriage was a dark little edifice unenterable by this girl. Mark Perdue and “Audrey Naale” (as she once was) had been wedded by their dark future, even from earliest days, back when the sparkle of innocence was on their gaze, dimming insight, like all mortals’, for even the innocent are omniscient, as well as clairvoyant, though they censor it. Mark and Audrey in the depths of clairvoyance had been wedded by the sound of the dishwasher in the future, every night its rumble. Every night while they slept upstairs side by side at night, it did its work in the darkened kitchen, a kind of timepiece down there, clinking and churning away by itself, unobserved. Thus does “time” pass in other rooms, without him there to observe it: that’s its implication, epistemologically. So much of the world transpires in one’s absence. All the world, really. One ought to be used to that. It shouldn’t feel like a surprise or injustice. One’s abiding absence from everything is a circumstance that he in particular, professionally, ought to have become comfortable with, rather than thinking of it as if it were some alarming new problem.
Ever the revealer of metaphysical insight in the everyday, Jones uses a simple phone call, in an ordinary car, and the memory of a dishwasher as a timepiece to portray a man at a precipice. Perdue’s not only trying to rationalize his embarrassment in this bizarre love triangle moment. He’s trying to rationalize his marriage to “Audrey Naale (as she once was),” an oblique allusion to the person she once was, before their late-term abortion, before she became his wife.
There are many such revelatory moments in Radiance, as well as many moments of fresh humor as Perdue and Blythe set out into the Hollywood wee-hours in search of Carlotta.
Talking to the cops aroused a dread he should have been feeling all along. He was a fool. He was an idiot. “Just a minute,” spoke the Asian-sounding voice, interrupting him, a young man, Vietnamese or Cambodian would have been Mark’s guess. The clicking of a computer keyboard could be heard. He began by asking for a name: not Lotta’s name but his.
Mark didn’t want to waste time on the many pages of this bureaucrat’s computer form. “Wouldn’t it be good to start with her? And a description? And then right away, you can put out an ‘APB.’”
APB was an expression he had been hearing on television police dramas since he was a child, but something in the acoustics of the phone, on the other end, made it ridiculous.
The officer said, “What’s APB?”
Radiance shines brightly aside Jones’ other novels, all New York Times Notable books. The only shame is that Radiance, clocking in at just over 200 pages, doesn’t shine long enough. An observation I think Mark Perdue would agree with.