Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier's graceful novel, The Illumination, is gorgeously written but disturbing.  It is a bit like Saramago's  Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory.  A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

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.

Kevin Brockmeier
Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer. 

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. 


Ellen said...

Not a rhetorical question, just a suggestion: is the book a religious one? Is there an underlying religious belief of some sort fuelling it? That could explain some of what is puzzling. Ellen

Frisbee said...

Christianity is an issue in one chapter--Ryan, the missionary, rages against God after watching his colleagues destroyed by natural disasters--but overall the pain doesn't seem to have religious significance. Perhaps it's more about the idea of pain, how it changes one? But I'd have to reread it.

Tony S. said...

This is such a coincidence, since I will be writing on "The Illumination" on Thursday. But no need for concern, my approach will be much different.

Frisbee said...

I'll look forward to reading it, Tony. It's a fascinating book and I'm sure there are many interpretations.