A company loses millions, its employees lose their jobs, and the executives who lost those millions walk away with millions more in severance. A pharmaceutical company buys a life-saving drug and raises the price 2000%. Unfairness and injustice that destroys hundreds of thousands of lives is so commonplace most of us do little more than swear in disgust or post a tirade on Facebook. But what if we started to really care? What if we wanted to do something, anything that might make a difference, send a message? And what if the pursuit of justice cost some people their lives? Would it have been better to do nothing at all?
These are the questions Ryan McIlvain explores in his novel, The Radicals, a story of earnest young intellectuals who want to fight capitalist injustice, but discover they’re no soldiers. Eli Lentz is a burnt-out graduate student in political economy. Sam Westergard recently finished his MFA in poetry. They’ve been classmates in a Marxist theory seminar for several weeks. But their friendship, and Sam’s political education, begin in earnest during their weekly meetings to, ironically, play that most haute bourgeois of games, tennis. They discuss the Occupy Movement and socialist writers. But when a national corporation collapses and its employees lose their retirement packages while the executives get golden parachutes, Eli and Sam realize they’re tired of just talking.
Their opportunity for action comes when Eli’s ex-girlfriend, Alex, tells him about a group she’s mobilized to raise media awareness of a bank’s impending foreclosure on Maria Nava, a single mother in Phoenix. The company she worked for went bankrupt, taking her stock options with it. Sam and Eli fly out West to join them. The Phoenix section of The Radicals is one of the finest parts of the novel. The confrontations between immature graduate students and jaded cops, the brief heartbreaking scene in which Maria’s children try to decide what childhood belongings they can take with them, the self-righteousness of Alex and her deft manipulation of her followers—it’s all pitch-perfect. And a brief conflict arises between Sam and Alex that raises the question on which the entire theme of the novel turns: what is commitment worth? Sam and a friend with a legal background approach the bank and negotiate an offer of debt forgiveness for Maria if Alex and the other protesters leave. Alex thinks accepting the deal would be a capitulation. Sam won’t have it: “This isn’t some Marxist theory class, it’s reality and a real family that has to live in it… You’re waiting for the revolution to come and in the meantime a family’s about to lose their house and gain a toxic load of debt.” Ultimately no one gets what they want, except the bank.
The Phoenix protest is a turning point for Alex, Eli, and even Sam. They’re tired of earnest, useless discussions, of playing the rules of a rigged system. They want to take decisive action. We know from the start that this will not end well. It is clear that nothing will end well for Eli and Sam. Reflecting on their first tennis match at the novel’s beginning, Eli recalls, chillingly, “I couldn’t have known that I was standing across the net from a murderer. And neither could he.” Eli, Sam and Alex have deep feelings and impressive formal educations, but little else. Eli wants something to replace his commitment to his graduate program and an academic career. Sam yearns for a faith to replace the one that led his ancestors across a desert to a New Zion. Alex is driven by anger rooted in the dispossession of her indigenous ancestors. Unlike Eli, Sam and Alex have some cunning and street smarts, but it takes more than that to weaken the corporate stranglehold on society.
This will be familiar psychological terrain to readers of McIlvain’s first novel, Elders, a story of two young Mormon missionaries ill-equipped to face the challenges of living an all-encompassing faith. But unlike the protagonists of McIlvain’s earlier work, Eli, Sam, and Alex pursue their own mission without an institution to support them and no imperatives from above. They have to think it through on their own. And when they act on those thoughts, it’s disastrous.
The compelling premise and haunted atmosphere of The Radicals is sometimes undercut by its unevenness. Alex and Sam, who are so crucial to the plot, are underdeveloped characters. Eli’s narrative voice falters at times. When he attends the senior recital of Jen, a music student he will soon fall in love with, he says to himself, “O brave new world that has such music majors in it!” This reference to The Tempest falls flat as an effort to convey the feelings Jen awakens in Eli. And in a later chapter, when Eli and Jen are flirting and sexting, their attempts at erotic word play are painfully bad: during a conversation about “aerial effects,” Jen remarks that she’d like to see Eli’s “effect go aerial,” meaning a photo of his erection, prompting Eli to say that he’d like to see Jen’s “aureole effect.” I was embarrassed for all three of them: Eli, Jen, and McIlvain.
At other times McIlvain overplays his hand with allusive foreshadowing. The centerpiece of Jen’s senior recital is a performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Anyone who already knows these songs (about confronting human suffering, about faith, about loving for the wrong reasons) will be as annoyed as I was that McIlvain’s laying it all on with a trowel. And for his readers who don’t know the Rückert-Lieder, McIlvain provides a translation of one of the most pertinent couplets: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen / Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben” (“I am lost to the world / With which I’ve wasted so much time”). We already know Eli’s adrift, that he has spent years cloistered in the academy and is utterly disenchanted with it. At this point, a German song cycle on Weltschmerz is a bit much.
McIlvain’s lapses into bad writing are all the more shameful because he can (and usually does) write beautifully. He flawlessly captures the psychological deadening that comes with burning out on a graduate program, and the emotional exhaustion (never mind the physical) that comes with working the bottom-rung jobs that are the common fate of liberal arts graduates. But McIlvain’s prose is most powerful when he writes, in Eli’s voice, of utter disillusionment, of acceptance of the unacceptable:
You get more used to it over time, but never all the way. No image of your dead brings them back to you, of course, or changes what happened to them, and yet you can’t help searching out the magic icon, the potent imagining. Take the effort to remember Stephen Hahn before he shrank down so vividly into his wheelchair. It’s just that—an effort. You feel the uselessness of it in the strength of your wishing for it. That’s God too, I think. That’s any heaven you can pin the name on.
The Radicals is the coming-of-age novel at its darkest: all the lessons are learned too late, if at all. It’s also an unflinching look at a society that considers so many of us disposable. Even without their disastrous mistakes, life doesn’t hold out much promise for these characters. Sam with his MFA in poetry, and Eli and Alex, two grad school dropouts, never stand much of a chance at lives of financial stability and comfort. And then there’s Jen, who says, “I’m a classical musician in the twenty-first century, I’m always worried about where the next rent check’s coming from,” and Mallory, Jen’s best friend, a mezzo-soprano who becomes a paralegal to pay off her crushing student debt. They’re all talented, passionate people for whom the world has no place. Our society would be vastly poorer without, for example, poetry or music. But capitalism as it currently functions ensures that almost no one can survive as a poet or a musician. The Radicals is a flawed, but nevertheless compelling, book.