Elizabeth Hand’s Radiant Days is a thematic follow on from her novella, Illyria. Starting in New York in 1978 and Paris in the 1870s, there is a palpable sense of fear and tension, almost as if the cities are waiting for the deluge. All it takes is a spark.
Featuring a pair of star-crossed lovers, Merle and Arthur, both of whom are innocents or raw talented neophytes, Radiant Days becomes a meditation on how art can change the city and the individual. Elizabeth Hand does indulge in her interest in Outsider Art through the Rimbaud’s poetry and the early graffitti scene. Having arrived in New York for art school, Merle drops out and sees the tags around the city. She begins to learn its new dialect, the implicit rules and regulations of the scene, in its illicit practices.
Meanwhile Arthur Rimbaud runs away from home again and is jailed for vagrancy. Reliant upon members of his family to get him out of prison, he begins writing and doing odd jobs. he is not one for learning by wrote and begins writing his extraordinary poems.
Both cross into each other’s times, meeting and adapting as if time travel was nothing new. It just happens to them in the intensity of their passion. I do wonder if part of this is musing on the idea of influence and how it might be interpreted by passion when artists who work in different areas become influenced by each other. The small body of knowledge and body of work helps Hand to concentrate on these aspects of Rimbaud rather than being caught in a historical novel.
Instead she gets under the skin of reality and sets out her argument for Outsider Art as a force for good. Its passion and rawness reveal more aspects to the world, the urban setting being grey in tooth and claw comes to tolerate it and finds way so muting into somehting it finds more acceptable. When Merle is on the streets, she is housed by Ted Kampfert, a faded homeless musician. After his death, her drawing of him is used on the eulogy as a cover which allows her into the art scene and gives the start to carry on doing what she enjoys until she becomes successful.
Radiant Days is a deceptively slight book, moving on from Illyria’s meditation on how art changes the world. It is less isolated than Generation Loss, moving towards making something. This is a book of makers, just not in the Gibson or Doctorow sense of the term.