Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky
Sarah Selecky’s debut novel Radiant Shimmering Light is the kind of book that sounds intriguing when boiled down to its elevator pitch, yet stumbles extensively in its actual execution. It’s a story incapable of stepping outside the self-imposed boundaries of the target market it serves. It does effectively explore the corrosive effects of social media obsession, akin to the clouds of gloom that hang over depressives in Zoloft commercials. But Selecky wanders aimlessly among the rest of the topics she attempts to tackle. The book’s nauseatingly safe prose and lack of narrative progression make it impossible for any noteworthy distinguishing features to materialize.
Lillian Quick is a single, childless 40-year-old virgin who makes her meager living painting portraits of animals. She reconnects with her cousin “Eleven” after two decades of separation, who in the intervening years has built an empire of motivational self-improvement programs called “Ascendancy,” heavily tied to online network marketing as its vehicle of action. In an attempt to kickstart her life Lillian takes a job within the Ascendancy spiritual retreat company while simultaneously participating in the five-month program itself. She experiences a surge in confidence, business success and personal life excitement, but as the program unfolds it becomes gradually evident that her cousin’s emphasis on social media presence and content monetization is shoved down everyone’s throat at the complete expense of genuine human connection.
Right out the gate Selecky sets a hard ceiling for how high her novel can soar by utilizing that type of prose: first person, earnest, and replete with narrator statements such as “Female friendships are so important! Where would I be without my girlfriends?” Lillian makes it clear that she loves women, especially how sweet and supportive they are when they get together and dress up. As with Girls and Orange is the New Black, it’s perfectly feasible to design a story populated mostly by females that examines the distinctly feminine experience and makes it universally relevant to anyone. Selecky meanwhile is interested only in peddling self-congratulation, offering fuel for female readers to energetically pat themselves on the back.
Radiant Shimmering Light doubles down on its shamefully imbalanced presentation of the sexes, resulting in egregious self-serving confirmation bias. Eleven’s for-profit Ascendency cult is a women-only organization that rejects the “masculine” ideals of progress, including “productivity.” (!) The few men that actually do appear in the novel are scarcely pronounced beyond their categorically evil attributes. Eleven’s father is an abuser who used to lock her in the basement, while Jonathan, Ascendancy’s resident yoga and meditation instructor, is soon revealed as a groper who ends up in a sexual encounter with Lillian (mainly precipitated by her) without disclosing the fact that he’s married. Keeping the male characters so minor and uniformly malevolent exposes the author’s severe lack of authorial courage, instead building an echo chamber designed to give herself a high five. The Ascendants try so hard to reach a feminine ideal so deeply fixated on social media metrics and product monetization, that they totally lose track of what it means to be human. It should come as no surprise that Lillian’s pronoun-neutral transgender friend emerges by far as the most genuinely compassionate figure in the story. Everyone else is deeply entrenched behind their own gender battle lines, at the expense of any remaining common ground.
It doesn’t help that intellectually bankrupt voodoo is frequently employed as conversational currency. Characters discuss astrological signs and moon phases more often than could ever be necessary, and the crowning topper is Lillian’s supposed ability to see “auras.” She claims to perceive a colorful cloud of spiritual energy emanating from every animal and person she encounters. Peddling this concept as a genuine phenomenon without irony is a moral infraction that can’t just be written off. Obligatory descriptions of each character’s aura quickly grow irritating—this character has an aura of clear pink and yellow, that one’s is wine-colored and flickering with green, the next is sky blue and rich purple. It’s a lazy shortcut to characterize a person and sheds light on nothing.
Contrary to what the jacket description may claim, the only successful satire in Radiant Shimmering Light is the portrayal of social media’s pervasive intrusion into our genuinely human faculties. A preoccupation with feeds, likes, posts and metrics erodes the Ascendants’ path toward self improvement, and the subsequent attempts to milk that attention for every possible dollar become increasingly cringeworthy (as intended). But every other realm of topical exploration is tone deaf to a degree far beyond any satirical rationalization. This story, populated with several interchangeable characters and no satisfying climax or ending, never quite delivers the shine promised in its title.