by Nika Knight
Sometimes I think it’s much harder to write about a novel I love than it is to review a work of fiction that I hate – when the words on the pages I’m supposed to review are so good, anything I write about them will inevitably pale in comparison. And pale this review must, as the writing in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination shines.
The main conceit of The Illumination is this: one day, around the world physical pain is suddenly made visual: light radiates from bruises, cuts, scrapes, aches, sores. “No one could disguise his pain anymore. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone’s impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in a glory of leukemia.”
The second conceit lies in the novel’s construction: six sections, and six main characters are linked together solely through the passing of a journal between hands, in which a man’s daily love notes to his wife are recorded. A sentence for each day of their marriage, the journal reads like this: “I love the smell of your perfume on my shirts. I love the way you curl up against my body. I love watching the sunset from the roof with you. I love seeing your number appear on my cell phone.”
I was initially wary of the novel, upon hearing of both conceits. Thankfully, the journal of love notes steadily fades out of the novel’s focus — descriptions of the decay of the physical book, as well as the import of its sentences, reflecting the transience of its message, the ephemeral quality of love. And it quickly becomes clear that choosing “the Illumination” as the novel’s crux was a wise decision on Brockmeier’s part, and signifying of a certain self-awareness. Because Brockmeier is a particularly gifted writer when it comes to description, and his writing reaches its pitch as his visual metaphors make vividly real and lyrically beautiful the interactions between people whose pain has been made brilliant with light. He achieves a rhythmic cadence, an interior echo of the pulsing light of pain that the words describe.
Take this scene, in which a character observes his surroundings, for example:
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.
Or this description, of historical images photoshopped to show what they might have looked like, if the Illumination had existed earlier:
A Spanish soldier reeling from a bullet strike, his head ringed in a silver corona. A man in a naval uniform crying as he played the accordion, a bright cloud of grief surrounding his face and fingers. The motorcase in Dealey Plaza, November 22, 1963: the president leaning into the eruption of light at his temple. A group of civil rights marchers hunching against the blast from a fire hose, the tightly contained spray of pain from their bodies matching the tightly contained spray of water. A young girl with napalm burns running naked in a dazzling aura. A famine victim staring out of the radiance of her hunger. A dozen men in fire helmets floating like lanterns in a field of smoke.
And then, of course, there are the stories, and the themes you might expect Brockmeier to explore as he creates a world in which pain is made not only visible, but beautiful.
The point of The Illumination makes is not so much a point as a rumination on the question of empathy, and how much our pain defines us to ourselves, as well as our interactions with others. Rather than inspiring compassion, the Illumination often results in awkwardness: “Was it discourteous to admit that you could see a person’s sickness playing out on the surface of his body?”
We also quickly realize that just as light draws our gaze, the pain of others commands our attention. Brockmeier explores this effect well:
She took three quick drags on her cigarette to make the emberhead glow, then, on the inside of her wrist where the blue vein beat, extinguished it. A powerful smell overtook the air, like the whiff of salt and char at a burger joint. The cigarette sizzled, and the smoke changed color, and a magnificent wave of light came bloating out of the burn. Through Jason’s camera, it resembled the great fanning loop of a solar flare. The aurora borealis was dancing over Greenland. Radios everywhere were filling with static. He couldn’t help himself: he took the shot.
The characters – a markets analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer and a homeless street vendor – all struggle with loss and the question of human connection. Just as the stories are separate and the main protagonist interact only at the point in which the journal is exchanged, they also orbit tightly within their own stories, rarely, if ever, forming a real or lasting connection with another person. A women loses her thumb through a cruel joke of her ex-husband’s; photojournalist drowns in a haze of grief after losing his wife; a child with an abusive father refuses to speak, and finds comfort not in people but in inanimate objects; a missionary chooses his religious path for the sake of his dead sister and then watches as natural disasters and terrorist attacks destroy those around him; a writer suffers from a persistent rash of sores in her mouth, making it almost impossible for her to speak; and finally, a street vendor is struck with psychic glimpses into people’s lives, but is unable to articulate himself and so exists in almost total isolation.
In the end, a world where pain is made of light is one in which pain transcends the bodies that bear it – the light becomes its own phenomenon, it transforms pain into a separate thing of beauty, a glow which commands others’ attention, but not necessarily their sympathy. Our suffering becomes, or perhaps always has been, what defines us; what limits us and what pursues us, as we struggle to find alleviation from what ails. And Brockmeier has drawn this world and its inhabitants as one so similar to ours, in gorgeous, subtle strokes.