Imagine a world where suddenly and inexplicably the sick and injured begin to emit light. Open wounds shine like flash lights, acne sparkles like glitter, leukemia patients shimmer and glow, and muscle tension can be seen “twisting like algae in an underwater current.”
This is the stunning phenomenon that drives Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. Though labeled a novel, the book reads more like a collection of linked short stories, each chapter focusing on a different character.
Description is Brockmeier’s strong suit: this light-emitting pain image is repeated dozens of times over the course of 250 plus pages, and yet in every instance the language is fresh, vivid, and beautiful. What’s hard to take is the incredible sadness of each character’s story. Brockmeier often leaves his people at a climactic point, a moment of despair, resignation, or expectations dashed: a boy bullied at school has hope to believe his physically abusive father has finally left, but when he awakens in the morning he finds his parents cuddled together asleep on the couch; a grieving widower learns to assuage his emotional pain when a teenaged girl teaches him her tricks for self-mutilation; an echolalic homeless man who appears to be neuro-atypical is beaten senseless by gangsters in a case of mistaken identity.
I’d hoped the author might revisit these people again somehow (e.g. the way Richard Powers weaves his disparate characters together in the latter sections of The Overstory), but no—except for very brief cameos in subsequent chapters we don’t hear of them again. In fact, what I’m calling cameos generally underscore the characters’ continuing misfortune.
What does link the characters together is a hand-written journal belonging to Patricia, a woman who dies in the first chapter. The book is filled with love notes that her husband would write on post-it notes and leave for her on the refrigerator each morning: “I love the sound of your voice over the phone when you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re doing a crossword puzzle from me.” “I love the way you hold a new book up to your face and fan through the pages to inhale the scent.” “I love driving to the bluff and drinking cheap red wine out of paper cups with you.”
Patricia has taken each sweet sentiment and copied it into her journal. After her death, through happenstance, her book passes from hand to hand, affecting each person in profound ways. A few even notice the leather-bound book emitting light itself, as if it too were a sentient creature.
In a 2011 review in The Guardian, Julie Myerson notes that it is this book that is the novel’s protagonist, a thought that had occurred to me as well. And yet the book redeems no one, and the last we see of it, it’s not long for this world either. The book spills its words into the gutter like a wreaked car spilling oil. A dismal end for this heart-felt journal.
In the end, what lasts is the light—both atomically and metaphorically, I guess. Exactly what Brockmeier is saying about that, I’m not sure, but I do envy the author’s ability to write about human sadness and pain in a unique and poignant way. These chapters are like beautifully rendered stations of the cross, displayed for those who have no fore-knowledge of Easter, a story that concludes at the grave. I myself don’t have the courage (if courage is what it takes) to leave my characters in such despair, though sometimes this seems like a more accurate depiction of life on Earth.
So I guess I’ll say that The Illumination is an intense, beautiful book, a treat for poetry lovers. You might want to read a chapter now, and then subsequent chapters later, over the course of weeks or months, because it’s kinda sad to read it all at once. But it most certainly is worth reading.
Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash