A Review of Ryan McIlvain’s “The Radicals”
Are you a Marxist? Do you miss the days of Occupy? Here’s a novel to digest, then. Ryan McIlvain’s sophomore novel The Radicals is essentially a state of the union for the protest movement. And it doesn’t look too kindly on that movement at all. The story is told from the viewpoint of a young man named Eli who is pursuing a political post-graduate degree in New York City. He becomes friendly with a classmate and tennis partner, Sam. Together, the two join up with an extracurricular protest against an energy company called Soline that is essentially breaking the backs of its workers. There are slight complications: Sam is dating Eli’s ex-girlfriend Alex, and Alex is a member of this protest group.
While Eli is now seeing a young musician and composer named Jen, that relationship slowly begins to slide off the rails — along with Eli’s academic career in general — as he, Sam and Alex get deeper and deeper into protest, which culminates in a murder (or two). Can Eli extricate himself from the protesters’ extremist politics? Or will he be implicated in the protest group’s crimes? Or both?
That’s the gist of The Radicals, which is a quick read at 288 pages. (I read this on a Kindle, but the page count is from the publisher.) Off the top, I’d like to say that McIlvain is a consummate crafter of words. Each word of his prose carries real weight, and it has the cadence of late period Jonathan Lethem. In fact, this book reminds me a bit of Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, just not set in the past and is not loaded to the gills with all sorts of philosophical references. Another trick that the author McIlvain employs is letting his characters speak in monologues. Now, a piece of writing advice given to young writers is to generally avoid monologues. However, McIlvain avoids any pitfalls associated with this device by doing it masterfully. His characters speak of past experiences in the same way that two friends might share a story at a coffee house in a social gathering. This creates a closeness between the reader and characters, as though the former is a fly on the wall in the latter’s (fictional) lives.
So McIlvain is a prose stylist who knows what he’s doing. Sadly, though, as much as The Radicals is compulsively readable and effortlessly enjoyable, I do think that the moment for this novel is past. The Occupy movement is five years behind us now, and while this book hints (and warns) at the boundaries that movement would try to push against in the post-Occupy world, I just don’t see the things this book cautions about happening right now in real life. Gatherings protesting Trump or other things, such as the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018, have been — to the best of my knowledge — rather peaceful with few, if any, arrests. I don’t see protester group cells forming a la the Weathermen in the ’60s to do harm to corporate interests, whether they be through the destruction of physical property or the murder of corporate executives.
I suppose that, in a way, The Radicals is a parody of the Occupy movement. It shows how disinterested most of the participants were in Occupy, and that the only way that any socialist protest movement that was serious would get any attention now would be to do something shockingly revolutionary, almost amounting to a form of domestic terrorism. However, at the risk of repeating myself, the signs are not there for any changes in the tactics of revolutionaries. The Radicals, ultimately, is one big “what if?”
There’s another problem with the novel, too: the characters are almost victims of circumstance. Eli, in particular, is a bit of a selfish jerk, and we never really get a sense of what draws him to the protest movement he gets involved in, or what would cause the escalation of his involvement with these so-called radicals other than through his own self-absorption. The rationale for his involvement probably gets narrowed down to the locus of his friendship with Sam, but we don’t really see enough of that friendship — only the frayed edges of it being worn down over time. Eli’s relationship with Jen is another question mark. He meets her early on in a university elevator where she rebuffs his advances, only to, pages later, be in love with him — an affair that leads to an engagement. The only thing that binds the two characters together is their mutual passion for sex. We have no insight into their courtship, or what Jen really sees in Eli (since the novel is from Eli’s point of view).
I don’t want to be too tough on The Radicals because, in general, I liked it and got swept away by the rhythm of its storytelling. There are some sharp corners on the dialogue that comes across as punchy, and the author certainly has a dry wit that’s appealing. That said, it is a flawed work that could have benefited from a little bit more character development and description. There are many characters on the periphery that are mere sketches and some who play an important role at the novel’s outset are reduced to mere passers-by by its conclusion. Still, despite these blemishes, The Radicals is worthy of examination, particularly if the subject matter interests you. For me, I’m not much of a socialist (though I’m a fan of social justice initiatives, paradoxically), so I could really imagine someone who is much more political than I am would be magically taken by this tale. So that all of that together and you get a concoction that is at least halfway successful. The Radicals is hardly radical, but, in a pinch, it’s good to go — especially if you favour style over substance. While the material might be lacking in some respects, this is a dazzling work from an author worth paying some attention to. A masterwork may not be far behind. Stay tuned.
Ryan McIlvain’s The Radicals was published by Hogarth on February 13, 2018.
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