It seems appropriate that Kevin Brockmeier’s new book, The Illumination (Pantheon), arrived in bookstores on the first day of February, that bleakest of winter months.
It’s not because the novel is bleak—it isn’t, not exactly. But neither is it as life-affirming as the book jacket would have you believe.
The Illumination is about just that: At 8:17 p.m. on a Friday evening, in the present era, light begins to radiate from anywhere there is pain on the human body. All of a sudden, all around the world, you can see the cancer glowing in someone’s lungs, the flickering of arthritic joints, the luminescence from blisters and ulcers and fresh scars.
Brockmeier is known as something of a fantasist, but The Illumination is not interested in the prosaic aspects of this mysterious occurrence. One never finds out why wounds suddenly shine with incandescence, and only in passing does the book mention any changes that occur as a result. (For example, emergency room protocols evolve, as it's easier to see how injured someone is by how brightly he glows.)
Instead, the book is an extended philosophical musing on the human condition: Why does pain exist? Is all pain equivalent? Does physical pain inflict more suffering than the emotional kind? Is there any difference between the pain of loss and loneliness and grief, the pain of illness and the pain of injury?
The traditional resolution to the philosophical problem of suffering (leaving aside the notion of original sin) is something along these lines: Pain exists because without it, pleasure wouldn’t be nearly as pleasurable. But The Illumination leaves pleasure out of the equation. Pain, the book seems to suggest, doesn’t exist as a counterpart to pleasure. Pain is the human condition, suffering is inescapable, and we must look for beauty not in spite of the pain but because of it.
I wish I could say all of the religious and philosophical metaphors and allegories don’t weigh the book down. But that’s not the case. You’ll notice I’ve yet to mention anything about the plot of The Illumination. That’s because there’s not one. The book is six novellas, each centered on a different character and his or her pain. There is Carol Ann Page, the lonely divorcee who slices off the top of her thumb; Jason Williford, whose grief over his dead wife drives him in search of physical pain to lessen the emotional kind; Chuck Carter, an abused, bullied autistic 10-year-old; Ryan Shifrin, a missionary who seemingly can’t get injured; Nina Poggione, a writer with mysterious sores who’s on a lonely West Coast book tour; and Morse Putnam Strawbridge, a homeless bookseller beaten by mobsters.
The only thread that ties these characters together is that they each end up in possession of a journal written by Williford’s dead wife, which consists solely of love notes he used to leave her every morning: “I love the sound of your voice over the phone when you’re trying to hide the fact you’re doing a crossword puzzle from me. … I love the way you leave a little space between each piece of bacon on your plate: ‘amber waves of bacon.’”
This is a thin premise to build a novel upon, and it doesn’t really work. These notes are clever and sweet, but by the end of the book, they’ve become cloying. Less cloying but equally overwhelming is just how sad every character is.
Brockmeier’s prose is often mesmerizing, but it veers into the banal with disconcerting frequency, as when Page thinks the following: “It was a joy to be alive when it was a joy to be alive, and it was a terror to be alive when it wasn’t. What else had she ever learned?”
Yet Brockmeier shows masterly skill in the Poggione section, which cuts back and forth between the lonely book tour and a short story Poggione has written based on the journal of mash notes. The story-within-the-story is about love and grief, but Poggione’s story is about love and life:
“How long had it been since she was well enough to unbutton someone’s shirt and dot his stomach with kisses? And did she have to be well enough? Maybe she was sick and despondent, broken into a thousand pieces by an illness that would not go away, but so what? Couldn’t she pretend she was whole for just one night? How much of yourself could you manufacture out of the fragments and the spare parts?”
This is the only section of the book that has anything resembling a happy ending—or, really, any kind of resolution whatsoever. I wish Poggione’s story had been the true heart of The Illumination, because isn’t that the other answer to the problem of suffering? That while it exists, and while it’s inescapable, it is our connection with other humans that makes this world bearable? Here, however, Brockmeier almost seems to be saying that human connections cause more pain than is bearable.
Brockmeier was named one of the best young American novelists by Granta in 2007. But the Little Rock, Ark., native seems to be bored with the idea of the novel; Poggione thinks, “With her first book she had seen the world as narrative, seen human lives as narrative. Now, instead, she saw them as stories. … [S]he’d come to believe that characters were made up of their ideas and perceptions rather than their actions.”
I would say that’s all The Illumination is—six characters in search of something more than an idea, something beyond an allegory. But somehow, despite all its flaws, The Illumination is a haunting meditation on the nature of pain, the meaning of suffering, the possibilities of God. It’s not a great book, it’s not a good novel, but Brockmeier has written something that resonates, pulsing with illumination itself.