In “Radiant Shimmering Light,” her brilliant, hilarious, perceptive debut novel, Sarah Selecky examines the enmeshing of “self-care” with flagrant self-promotion and knee-jerk consumerism.
Narrator Lilian Quick — 40, insecure, and in considerable debt — makes her living in Toronto selling pet portraits on Etsy. The portraits showcase Lilian’s ability to see animal auras, a supernatural gift that the novel presents as a plausible talent. Lilian’s every choice is filtered through self-doubt. “Why did I eat that sugary thing for breakfast?” she thinks. “Am I too old to wear a minidress?” “Why do I always have to ruin every good thing that happens to me?”
Some of the good things that happen to Lilian are questionable, particularly when she moves to New York to work for her cousin, a famous, self-styled self-care expert known as Eleven Novak, who headlines expensive conferences such as “Express Your Enlightenment.”
Selecky masterfully mimics the marketing-speak of “gurus” like Eleven: an endless cycle of metaphor and hyperbole, pet names for her followers (“petals,” “darlings”) and a cultish adaptation of language for her own purposes. Eleven’s Ascendancy workshop attendees are “Ascendants”; when they vent their frustrations, the process is known as a “Compost Heave.”
Eleven herself is, in fact, Florence Novak of Indiana, a child raised in a well-to-do family with violent undertones. Lilian’s reflections of youthful summers spent with her cousin Florence include casual breaking and entering, scheming and theft, but Lilian continues to remember her fondly after their families stop communicating.
Although the cousins’ back story is solidly written, Selecky excels when she focuses on the world of self-promotion. The novel halts frequently to make room for its characters’ exhaustive social media posts — “I don’t want to seem narcissistic, but it’s important to stay current,” Lilian says — as well as for business newsletters that start out sounding like personal missives. “Dear Lilian, That was it. That was Session One of the Ascendency. How are you, sweetheart?” begins one of Eleven’s mass e-mails.
Eleven gives her Ascendants “special cupcakes” made by a baker who keeps “the ingredients […] in a sacred room.” An Ascendant proposes that she and Lilian “heartstorm […] ideas” (in lieu, presumably, of brainstorm).
Alongside these delicious satirical moments, Selecky includes occasional respite from the jargon, particularly when Lilian’s friend Juliette is on the page. Although Juliette is a successful lifestyle blogger in her own right, she is also candid about the disingenuousness of the perfect surface she presents to the world. Her authenticity outshines all the claims of love and connection during the Ascendancy sessions.
The novel, at its core, examines the nature of genuine friendship, freed from the need to build a brand.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, Narrative, Glimmer Train, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
Radiant Shimmering Light
By: Sarah Selecky.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 358 pages, $27.