Radiant Days begins in 1978 following Merle Tappitt, fled from an abusive redneck childhood for the only slightly greater comfort of art school. She explores her own artistic impulses and means, and makes a few friends among fellow students, as well as one female teacher who takes a special personal interest. Stimulated by the nascent scenes of punk rock music and graffiti art, Merle herself takes up graffiti, inspired by the work of “SAMO” (a real-world tag which belonged to Jean-Michel Basquiat before he became an art world superstar). Her signature tag gives the book its title.
Before we get too far into the story of Merle, the story switches to 1870 and the point of view of a teenage Arthur Rimbaud, likewise going through parent-related difficulties and struggling to find his muse. Although Merle Tappitt and Arthur Rimbaud are separated by an ocean and more than a century, they inexplicably meet, after each has an encounter with a mysterious old fisherman. Rimbaud speaks French and Merle English, yet they understand each other without trouble, cross briefly into each other’s worlds and apart again.
I love the depiction of the lives of young, rough-edged creative people. As in her Cass Neary novels (Generation Loss and Available Dark), Hand portrays the gritty, often unglamorous daily life and struggles of the creative person in a way that seems true, equal parts grim and inspiring.
Something Elizabeth Hand does better than anyone is show the way impressionable creative types juggle influence and inspiration. A painter might be influenced by music or poetry, might try their hand at charcoal portraits, join a band, or spend a year doing graffiti art. That’s the way real artists find their way, develop a personal style or voice, yet it’s rare to see this path to artistic selfhood portrayed in fictionalized lives of artists. The struggle toward creative self-expression is messy, non-linear, full of self-defeating detours and periods of fallowness and frustration. Radiant Days captures the young artist’s struggle for clarity, for insight and direction.
Though Radiant Days is marketed toward the “Young Adult” category of reader (and I’m much older than that), I enjoyed it for Hand’s clear, expressive writing and the honest way she depicted the struggle of the artist, using both the fictional Merle Tappitt and the drawn-from-life Arthur Rimbaud.