(Pantheon, Feb. 2011)
by Kevin Brockmeier
Review by Sean Ennis
Kevin Brockmeier’s newest novel, The Illumination, describes a world where all physical pain—from injuries or acute disease or chronic ailments—manifests itself as light. A sliced thumb, lung cancer, arthritis, even acne shine in ways to match the individual’s experience of discomfort. This sudden change in the rules of reality comes without warning and without explanation, and the effect is both beautiful and horrifying. Almost everyone has some new light about them—everyone is in some sort of pain. And the novel examines what happens when we can’t help but be aware of the pain of others, and we cannot hide our own.
The Illumination is also the story of an intimate journal of love notes left behind after a young couple dies in a car accident, which passes randomly through the hands of six very different strangers. The contents of the journal are a series of sentences from husband to wife listing one of the things he loves about her. Sometimes they are tender (“I love seeing your body turn into a mosaic through the frosted glass of a hotel shower”), sometimes idiosyncratic (“I love the fact that when you accidentally pick up a hitchhiker, what you’re worried about is that he’ll steal the DVDs you rented”), sometimes downright corny (“I love your ten fingers and love your ten toes”), but the overall effect is that this couple’s relationship feels very real. And it is the reality of this love between husband and wife that affects its six owners so powerfully in a world otherwise lit up with so much pain. The book itself shines a light on the loneliness of those who possess it. The journal tests the faith of a missionary pastor, inspires a love-starved writer, and mystifies and empowers a troubled schoolboy. Like all texts—even one this simple—it holds different meaning for each of its readers.
Brockmeier’s work has always been characterized by his crystalline and surprising descriptions, which appear almost list-like in many sections of this book. And given the subject matter, this eye for detail provides for some strange and even haunting images. The initial media coverage of The Illumination shows, “soldiers burning out of their injuries, footballers flickering through their pads and jerseys…children with sack-like bellies basking in a glow of hunger,” and these sorts of brilliant descriptions populate just about every page. Brockmeier has cheated pain a bit here, since it is notoriously difficult to write about. But by giving it a visual manifestation, the characters and the reader can better understand just how intense or widespread or throbbing or aching or sharp it might be. Pain is defeated in some sense by being rendered as beautiful.
One could easily imagine Brockmeier’s premise slipping into a predictable parable of the science fiction variety—recognition of the pain of others causing some sort of global recalculation of the way we treat each other. But, aside from the initial conceit that pain now shines, the novel is entirely realistic. His portrayals of the interior lives of the six protagonists is thorough and honest, and the reader is genuinely sad when each of their respective sections end. Surprisingly, and often very sadly, the characters in The Illumination interact in many of the same cruel and heartbreaking ways that we do now with our familiar, invisible pain. And similarly, many find glimpses of how to endure, and even how to love in this changed, brighter world.
Best-selling and award-winning novelist Kevin Brockmeier lives in his hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas.