In Paris, the so-called radiant city, Matthew Bowles, freelance journalist, suffers a dark time. Holed up in a bare apartment in the 8th arrondissement, he’s recuperating physically, though not emotionally, from injuries sustained in a shooting in Hebron. His memory of the event is murky, and although the media has deemed him a hero – he may or may not have tried to save a man and his child – Matthew is repulsed by the attention. Unable to work, Matthew reluctantly agrees to write a book “about what got you shot” for which a New York literary agent promises “six figures on spec.” This is the project he tries to get on with in those times when he’s free from depression, free from the panic attacks triggered by certain sounds or crowd situations. More often than not, Matthew is mired in the memories of other war zones – Beirut, Herzegovina, Rwanda, Iraq – where he has worked as a war correspondent. There’s a “sack of skulls” he carries around with him. Surfacing, as well, are memories of his rural Nova Scotia childhood: a barn on fire, horses trapped. Recollections of his mother – a woman who held on until Matthew got away from home – explain, perhaps, Matthew’s tender regard for Sadia Ferhat, a Lebanese woman who, with her father and brother, runs a restaurant in Matthew’s district. Doing what he can to save Sadia’s son, who is teetering on a life of drugs and crime, Matthew’s life intersects in surprising ways with former colleague Jack Sadler, photo-journalist and ex-mercenary, now living in Paris and also recovering from war trauma. Jack’s presence in Paris is, at first, a comfort. Tough, burly, and resilient, Jack knows how to deal with panic: “‘there’s part of the brain that always lives in the present tense of the trauma .... doesn’t realize that whatever shit happened to you isn’t still happening .... convince your lizard brain that time’s moved on.’” The intersection of these three lives is Davis’s story in The Radiant City, a novel that, like Dante’s Inferno, spirals downward. The Paris underground – literally and metaphorically – teems with betrayal. The authorial compassion of this book is, however, radiant.
Lauren gives an overview of the book:
Matthew wakes with a start. It is how he always wakes now, as though someone has yelled in his ear. He opens his eyes, looks out the bedroom window onto the courtyard. Dark out there, but that means nothing, it might be morning, might be afternoon, even. The bed is as hard as an army cot. That's the problem with furnished apartments. That and the crucifix over the bed. Must remove that. He rolls onto his side, sits up slowly and hangs his head in his hands. Coffee. Must have coffee. He looks at his feet and notices for the first time the broken-blood vessels around his ankles. When had they appeared? He feels sick to his stomach. Bathroom. The morning gag. Brush teeth. Do not look too closely in the mirror. Wash. Shaving optional. Forget shaving.
Shuffle into the kitchen. Root around in the sink for a semi-clean cup. Plug in the coffee maker. While coffee brews, go into the living room. The two large windows here tell him it is morning. Turn on the pint-sized television. Blah-blah-blah. Turn it off again. Go back to the kitchen. Open the refrigerator. Steak. An old bag of salad. A wrinkling tomato. Half a dozen cans of beer. Some goat cheese. A bowl of fat green olives marinated in garlic. Whoa. Stomach not ready for that one. Ah, milk. Coffee in cup, milk in coffee. Cup in hand. Sip. Ah. Coffee brain fizzle. There's a dance in the old boy yet.
He carries the cup into the living room, to the cubby hole on the other side of the main room. He congratulates himself again on finding a top floor apartment at 11 bis, rue de Moscou. He sees the apartment as monastic, with aspirations. He is trying to step out of the husk of his past here and wants as little as possible tugging at his sleeve. If he is going to emerge, he must do so unencumbered. If he is not going to emerge, he wants to leave nothing behind. The price is right and more importantly it is a top floor, so his claustrophobia is not a garrotte across his throat. There is no bang-bang-bang of overhead footsteps, and the light is good. The syrupy light flows in through the open window, across the cluttered, battered old table that serves as Matthew's desk. It soothes him, as does the view itself.
The Place du Dublin is not a particularly pretty square, and it is in a small corner of the 8th arrondissement behind the Gare St. Lazare where there isn't a single tourist attraction. Le Primavera Bistro on the corner sets up red tables and chairs and yellow umbrellas beneath the poplars whenever there is the least hope of suitable weather. There is also a green fountain that, like the quality of this morning's light, pleases him. There is something about the miniature temple, with its steady streams of water flowing over the upturned arms of the goddesses Simplicity, Temperance, Charity, and Goodness, that gives Matthew hope. The sunlight sparkling off the water is like laughter, transmuted at this distance from sound to shards of prismatic encouragement.
Matthew has seen a great deal of light in his travels around the world, and he has come to the conclusion that it has different properties in different places: the harsh glare of a frozen ice field, the sweet veil in a bamboo thicket, the distortion of distance and depth that follows a thunderstorm when the sun's rays stab under the skin of cloud-cover, the threatening gloom of a darkening prison cell. Light takes on the characteristics of the objects in its path, which, he has come to believe, is what humans do as well. 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. He has concluded that contrary to what religious imagery would try to persuade the populace, light is neutral, and indifferent.
The wounds in his body have closed over and physically, Matthew is as good as he is going to get. The mind is another matter. Diagnoses have been assigned. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nervous Exhaustion. Still, the practical problem exists regardless of mental fragility: if you want to eat, you must have money. In a flurry of demented activity back in the United States the month before, he sold everything he owned. It put some money in the bank, but depressingly little. If he wants more, he must write the book. It is a simple equation, the execution of which has thus far evaded him.
And so, begin now. Start again. But first, scan the bookshelf above the desk to see if there is any inspiration to be had there or, failing that, any excuse to procrastinate. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, which is Matthew's bible. But not today. Some short stories by Grace Paley. A book by M.F.K. Fisher, a gift from someone now forgotten. The Collected Stories of John Cheever, some science fiction. Asimov, Frank Herbert, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury. Nope. Sorry, pal. Nothing for you this morning. Pick up a pen and face the page. It must be longhand, for he has long since learned the terrible temptation of the delete button. Breathe. Start where? Beirut? El Salvador? He writes about Beirut, and Sid Cameron, the Belgian photographer who wore a brown and yellow paisley vest he never washed. About the day Sid took him to the Palestinian refugee camp at Sabra, after the Lebanese Phalangists had slaughtered thousands. About the endless swelling bodies, the wandering, weeping women, the rubble, the mutilations. About how Sid had thoughtfully turned his head away as Matthew vomited and then offered him a half-bottle of warm coke with which to wash out his mouth. "You'll get used to it," said Sid, who had survived his initiation in Vietnam and told stories about what napalm and bouncing-betty landmines could do.
Sabra was such a dusty place, and hot. Like Hebron. Don't go there. Back away. Next stop, El Salvador. Still hot, but wet, damp enough to flush the dust out of memory's mouth. The pen moves. . .
El Salvador. Carl showed me the ropes. He drove slowly, thoughtfully, on his daily rounds, taking photos of all the new corpses that appear like weird night-blooming succulents, fresh each morning. Fresh too were the strange blisters that blossom on my skin, spreading like a pale parasitic vine across my hands, my arms, and my chest. The rash grew with the rising sun and receded each night only to begin again. The blisters didn't bother me much during the day, when they were nothing more than a soft burning, but at night, as they germinated under my skin, they itched like something crawling beneath the flesh.
Carl laughed at me as the blisters spread across my face, making me look like a pimply adolescent. "You should have seen the stuff that'd grow on you in 'Nam. It was like farm country in your boots," he said.
What ever happened to Carl? Matthew thinks, back again in his body, at his desk, in this Paris apartment. Oh yes, newscaster somewhere in the American mid-west, last anyone heard. And then, knowing he should not, he reads over what he's written. Frustration wells up from the bottom of his gut, bubbles over his chest and down to his fingertips. He thinks he should keep a large metal garbage bin next to his desk wherein he can have regular fires. It is difficult not to tear the page to shreds with his teeth. He has become, however, a very good crumpler, and his wastebasket is more than accepting.
So, there will be no more writing today. But what then? He does not want to do what he mostly does. Mostly he sits and tries very hard not to remember things. Not Josh. Not the father. Not the daughter. Not Kate. Not his own father, brother, mother. Not Rwanda. Not Kosovo. Not Chechnya. Not so many places, not so many people. Not remembering them leaves very little room in his mind for anything else.
It is now eleven o'clock in the morning, and from the window, he watches the young man at Chez Elias¸ a tiny café on the square. He wears a long white apron and uses a long-handled brush to wash the glass. Now he whistles optimistically, but Matthew has seen him sitting at a table in the window, no customers in the café, pouring over maps with a look of deep dissatisfaction on his face.
Matthew realizes he is jiggling his knee, tapping his foot, and he stops himself, because he knows from experience this nervous energy is not good for him. He tells himself he is adjusting to the tic-tock passing of time outside the crisis-zones. He tells himself he is fine. He tells himself he should not have had that fourth cup of coffee. He tries to read The International Herald Tribune, a story about the North Africans, the san-papiers, who have occupied the Saint Bernard church in Barbès, demanding legal residence papers. It looks bad, with the government sounding tougher and tougher. It will not end well. He puts the paper aside. Folds it in a neat square and presses it flat. Looks around for somewhere to stuff his discontent.
The sweep of the clock's hands is agonizingly slow; the voices of the children on the street below are needles in his ears. He briefly considers calling Brent, back in New York, but it is too early, and besides, he already knows what Brent will say. How's the book coming along? Come on, pal, get yourself together.
Deciding what to do in a tourist town when one is not technically a tourist is a wretched task. Matthew has seen the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame on previous trips; he has chased the ghosts of Joyce and Hemingway through the cafés and bookshops. He does not want to stroll up the Gap-and-Planet-Hollywood-infested Champs-Élysées. He certainly does not want to go to a museum. He begins pacing, which is a bad sign.
Jack Saddler. Perhaps it is the morning's work, the memories of Sid and Carl that make him think of Jack Saddler, but the name now springs to mind and he is surprised he has not thought of it before. Jack Saddler. Vietnam vet, ex-mercenary, sometime combat photographer. The last time he saw Jack, back in Kosovo, he had said he was heading to Paris, in need of a break. Jack Saddler, who knew a thing or two about lugging a sack of skulls.
France Telecom proves helpful and a few minutes later Matthew dials a number for a mobile phone.
"Jack?" This is a lot of noise in the background.
"Hey! You in Paris?"
A moment's silence and then, "How you holding up?"
"I can imagine." The sound of car horns. "Fuck off! Not you, Matthew. You'd think we were in Tehran the way the French drive. Can you hear me?"
"I can hear you."
"Tell you what, you free later?"
"Meet me at this bar I know. Called The Bok-Bok." Jack chuckles. "You'll like the place. It never closes, and no one forces conversation if you don't feel sociable, know what I mean?"
"Just give me an address and a time," Matthew says.
When he gets off the phone Matthew looks at his watch, then he takes a sleeping pill and strains toward unconsciousness until evening.
When I began writing The Radiant City it was about a bunch of rootless drifters in Paris, a kind of meditation on what constitutes belonging. However, after September 11, I found I wasn’t interested in those characters any longer.
I had to rethink what I was obsessing about, since I can only write about what is really bugging me. And here I was, devastated by 9/ll. I stood at my window in Paris and kept looking at the Eiffel Tower, wondering if it was going to be attacked as well. I was glued to any news media I could get. I cried on and off for months. I was inconsolable. And I felt guilty about the intensity of my feelings. Why? Because bad things have always happened, right back to the beginning of history -- ravaging hordes, berserkers, Vlad the Impaler, the Holocaust, Rwanda, to name just a few. I felt I should have known! How could I not have known? I was disappointed in myself and disillusioned not only with the world, but with my understanding of it.
So what was it about this particular event that crushed me? I’m still not sure, but I suspect I felt closer to 9/11 than I did to Chechnya, or Yugoslavia, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, because I like to think of myself as someone whose mental borders are global, not national, and certainly not tribal. But for whatever reason, I now knew something, viscerally, profoundly, about the world’s potential for barbarity, that I didn’t fully recognize before. And it shocked me. And the fact that I was shocked, shocked me. So I began writing about different characters, with different responses to violence.
To know this new thing about the world is one thing, but the question remains: what do you do with the knowledge? A friend in Paris who is an artist, writer, and retired neurosurgeon once told me that he thought the definition of “original sin” was humanity’s inability to learn from our mistakes. It’s the best definition I’ve heard. And that’s precisely what the characters in The Radiant City are struggling against–their inability to learn from their own devastating pasts. They are all battered, brittle survivors of violence in one form or another, and yet they still may be powerless to turn away from violence. Is that our fate? Or is there hope? Is there the possibility of redemption for our species? And if so, what form does that possibility take? How do we protect ourselves against the insidious cancer of cynicism? Rev. Ernest Hunt, who used to be the Rector at the American Cathedral in Paris, said once, “Cynicism is the last refuge of the broken-hearted.” That idea stuck with me and formed a kernel of intent for this book.
Lauren B. Davis’s most recent novel is OUR DAILY BREAD, a compassionate look at what happens when we view our neighbors as “The Other”, and the power of unlikely friendships. OUR DAILY BREAD is published by Wordcraft of Oregon, in the US and Harper Collins in Canada and has...