The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier, Pantheon Books, 2011, 262 pp
Readers of Keep the Wisdom may have noticed that I am attracted to the whimsical, the magical, the fantastic, in novels. Kevin Brockmeier surprised and startled me with his first novel, A Brief History of the Dead. I wondered how he would do that again in his second.
The Illumination is another work of sheer imagination laid over the gritty reality of modern life. Brockmeier uses the device of an object which passes through the hands of six characters, in this case a book of love quotes. It is a journal kept by a young married woman whose husband left her a love note everyday. "I love the way you kiss. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height." She copied his notes into her journal each day. But then she dies and the journal is taken by another woman who had shared the hospital room where she died.
Meanwhile, during the hospital stay, a phenomenon occurs all over the world. Each person's bodily pain shows up as light, causing wounds and illnesses to glow and glitter. One might wonder if such an aesthetic limning of pain would bring about a more compassionate world. As the love journal passes through the hands of five more characters in the following months, the answer proves to be: not necessarily.
A story featuring so much pain and adversity does not induce cheerfulness. I found myself feeling sorrowful and even horrified at the loneliness, the unfulfilled dreams, the hopeless nature of so many people's lives. All the imagery of injury, disease, pain; all the illumination of flesh, organs, muscles, cells and nerves were almost too much. Some characters deal with pain by numbing it, some attempt to rise above it, some even inflict pain on themselves or others to block out existing suffering.
The blurb on the back cover of The Illumination says, "What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?" I emphatically do not agree that Kevin Brockmeier believes any such thing. He leaves each of his six characters with their stories unresolved, just as he leaves the questions he raises about pain without clear answers. What he did for me was open new ways of thinking about the Buddhist precept that life is suffering. Most of all, due to his beautiful writing and his ability to infuse the tedious world with magic, he took me away for a while and left me with a renewed sense of wonder. What if there is more to life than pain?
(The Illumination is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)