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The Illumination


The Illumination

No doubt there are those who dismiss the notion that it's possible to write a lyrical novel on the subject of human pain. But perhaps they will change their minds after reading Kevin Brockmeier's gorgeous new work about how we suffer and how we love.

Continuing the fabulist inclination of his novel THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD and short story collection THE VIEW FROM THE SEVENTH LAYER, Brockmeier proceeds from a fantastic premise: What would it mean to us if physical pain became visible in the form of light? The story begins simply, innocuously, as a woman slices open her finger trying to open a package wrapped with devilish complexity by her ex-husband. When her wound is bandaged, she notices "a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting." Soon the phenomenon --- the Illumination --- is observed around the world, "light pouring from the injuries of the sick and wounded."

As intriguing as Brockmeier's concept is, it's matched by the imaginative device he employs to link, if only obliquely, the superficially disparate stories of his characters. Carol Ann Page, whose injury launches the novel, shares a hospital room with Patricia Williford, who dies from her injuries in a car accident, her bed "lit up like a signal mirror." She leaves behind a journal filled with love notes like these that she has painstakingly copied from the notes her husband affixes to their refrigerator each morning:

"I love those three perfect moles on your shoulder --- like a line of buttons. 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 your lopsided smile." These observations, mundane in their singularity, slowly develop a cumulative power and beauty in the aggregate.

Carol takes possession of the journal when she leaves the hospital, and in the balance of the novel, it passes through the hands of a series of damaged souls --- the widower whose notes comprise its content, a 10-year-old boy suffering under the domination of an abusive father, a missionary who loses his sister to cancer and spends a long lifetime ministering to sufferers around the world, a writer wracked by the pain of oral lesions, and a homeless man selling books on the street. Each experiences the content of the journal in a different way, and each is profoundly changed from that reading.

THE ILLUMINATION is not a science fiction story, nor does Brockmeier spend much time exploring the sociological aspects of the phenomenon. Indeed, as one character notes wryly, "when it became clear that the world was not ending, or not ending soon, and everyone began to accept that pain now came coupled together with light, the congregation diminished." Instead, his focus is on the interior lives of his characters. There's even a haunting story within the story of the pain-plagued novelist, Nina Poggione, imagining a process of written communication between the living and the dead.

Brockmeier depicts all of this in prose --- call it luminous, radiant, shimmering --- that is every bit as light-filled as the phenomenon he describes. His imagination in portraying the manifestation of pain's emanations, whether the "burning corona of a bite mark" on a woman's arm or a wheelchair-bound teenage girl, "her pelvis a shining cameo of bones," is inexhaustible. As with the journal entries, by the novel's end the accretive effect of these images is captivating, almost hypnotic, summed up in this climactic passage, one of many that displays Brockmeier's expressive gift:

"On the corner, beneath the black canopy of a newsstand, he saw an abscessed tooth blazing like a newborn star. The stacked blocks of a degenerative disk disorder came leaning out of a taxi. Behind the window of the drugstore were a pair of inflamed sinuses, by the counter a shimmering configuration of herpes blisters, on the bench a lambent haze of pneumonia. And across the street Morse saw a great branching delta of septicemia slide through the rear doors of an ambulance and disappear in a glory of light."

"Everyone had his own portion of pain to carry," Patricia Williford's grieving husband muses. That pain is a constant of the human condition is undeniable, and because we are unable to experience the physical suffering of even those most precious to us, we remain impossibly distant despite our closeness. And yet, Kevin Brockmeier seems to be telling us in this emotionally affecting story, though pain may endure and threaten to break us, in the end love persists, too --- and prevails.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on March 28, 2011

The Illumination
by Kevin Brockmeier

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375425314
  • ISBN-13: 9780375425318