The science fiction aspect is apparent from the beginning. Perhaps some would call this magic realism. In Brockmeier's alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up. As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining. Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.
In the first chapter, Carol Ann Page, a data analyst, severs the tip of her thumb while attempting to open a package from her ex-husband. At the hospital, her wound begins to glow.
"...when she saw the light shining out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating. It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting."
In the operating room, someone says, "This is really freaking me out. Isn't this freaking anyone out?"
But the world soon gets used to it. The light is everywhere, on the streets, in photos, on TV. People flash with pain.
In the hospital, a dying woman, thinking her husband is dead, gives her journal to Carol Ann. Her husband had left a love note daily, which she copied into the journal. Each beautiful note begins with, "I love..." Her relationship with her husband is in every way the opposite of Carol Ann's with her ex-husband. It describes a perfect love.
As this journal gets passed from person to person, it inspires, raises questions, and causes problems. Love is contrasted with pain. The characters who "share" the journal include: Jason, a photojournalist, the widower of the woman who gave away the journal, and the author of the notes; Chuck, an autistic child; Ryan, a former stockbroker turned Christian missionary for the sake of his dead sister; Nina Poggione, a writer who suffers terribly from ulcers on her mouth, but must give readings; and Morse, a homeless man who sells books on the street.
The characters are fascinating, but the illumination doesn't quite clarify for me. The chapter about Nina is perfect: the descriptions of her loneliness on the book tour, her attempts to speak as little at her readings because of the pain caused by language (she has ulcers on her mouth and it hurts her to speak), her anxiety about her teenage son, and her attraction to the young man who hits on her at readings. The chapter about Jason is also pitch-perfect. He is in such pain after his wife's death that he gets involved with a group of teenage cutters. On the other hand, the chapter about Ryan, an urban missionary who rages about the meaninglessness of suffering, is startling after Brockmeier's spare elegance in the other chapters. I absolutely understand his rage, though, and he addresses the Christian question.
Something tells me I need to read this novel again to understand exactly what Brockmeier is saying. His lyrical writing is stunning. A spare Borges mixed with David Lindsay? Maybe. But I might find it difficult to reread, because of the emphasis on pain.
One of the best new books of the year so far.