Ideally I would convince you to read The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier without telling you anything about it so you could experience the story as I did—without any sort of expectations or assumptions going into it. But I understand that’s not how book reviews typically work and you’re probably looking for just a little more reason to invest the time it takes to read a novel. And although the premise of the book—the event for which it’s titled—is not really a huge secret (you get a hint of it on the second page and it’s revealed by page eight), it’s an interesting phenomenon to discover as you read those first few pages rather than having it explained before you’ve even cracked open the book.
That said, I’m going to try to do at least a portion of this review without telling you what the Illumination actually is, in case you’re like me and you’d like to save some surprises for yourself.
First, a short pitch: The Illumination is a novel, probably of the sort that would be categorized as “literary fiction.” It’s set in our modern-day world and it’s mostly straight-forward realism, though with some beautiful passages that will have you stopping to read them again. (I even marked a few—keeping up with my New Year’s Resolution!) If you’re the sort of reader that appreciates the writing itself and aren’t solely interested in moving a plot along, then you’ll find a lot to love here; if not, then you might want to skip it.
The book is broken up into six large chunks—almost novellas—each focusing on a different person. What ties these six very different people together is a journal: a collection of little one-line love letters that a husband left for his wife.
I love listening to you pick out a song you don’t know on the piano. I love the way you’ll try to point out a star to me over and over again sometimes: “That one. Right there. Can’t you see it? Just follow my finger.” I love the lines that radiate from the corners of your eyes when you smile, and I’ll love them even more when they’re permanent, honey. I love how you roll your eyes but can’t help smiling whenever I call you “honey.”
Each person comes into possession of the journal at some point and although the journal is not the main point of the book, the little love notes are scattered throughout and form one of the underlying themes. It’s a way to paint a picture of this relationship between a husband and a wife without the actual presence of the couple themselves. The messages made an impression on me, as you can see from my Valentine’s Day letter to my wife, and there’s even a Tumblr page where you can submit your own notes.
The six main characters each have their own tale to tell. Carol Ann Page slices open her thumb while opening a package—a silly mistake which has unexpected repercussions. Jason Williford is a photographer who wants to lose himself in his pain. Chuck Carter is a 10-year-old autistic boy, and his chapter is told the way he would tell it, surprisingly complex despite his father’s perception that Chuck is an idiot. Ryan Shifrin is a missionary who isn’t sure what he believes—as he goes through life narrowly avoiding disasters he questions what exactly God has in store for him, if anything. Nina Poggione is an author who incorporates pieces of the journal into her own short stories. Morse Putnam Strawbridge is a homeless man, selling books on the sidewalk outside a Chinese restaurant.
Although Brockmeier’s voice carries throughout the entire book, there are subtle shifts in each chapter that shape it to the various characters. It’s not a new idea to write from an autistic child’s point of view (remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?) but Brockmeier does something really amazing with Chuck’s chapter that had me going back a few pages to start the chapter over again. When Ryan’s mind starts to go (it’s not explicit but it seems he develops Alzheimer’s), time seems to become fluid as he moves from the present to the past in the space of a single sentence. The section about Nina was split between the story about her and one of her own short stories which was sort of a magical fable but almost felt like it was part of our world. Morse’s chapter ended up being about several people, because of a somewhat mystical ability he has to see into other people’s thoughts, these “occasional episodes of deep understanding.” There’s something broken in his mind that prevents him from communicating clearly with people, but at the same time he knows them at a level that only an omniscient narrator can.
Brockmeier plays with the language in a way that seems like he’s winking at the reader. When Chuck reads over his vocabulary list, the next paragraph uses almost all the words in the various sentences. A reader asks Nina what words she overuses, and she mentions “lambent, but I love that one.” In the next chapter I came across “lambent” at least once.
Okay, so here’s the reveal.
Again, it’s probably not something that’s a secret if you’ve read anything at all about The Illumination (including the jacket flap). At the beginning of the book, a worldwide phenomenon occurs that nobody can explain: pain becomes visible. Physical pain lights up: headaches show up as flickering lights at the temples or forehead, cuts bleed out light, bruises can be seen shining underneath clothing. While the occurrence is never explained, it’s apparently there for good. Brockmeier explores the ramifications of such a world—what would an emergency room be like if you could immediately tell who was more hurt? The front pages and television news are filled with images of the light of the wounded. Teenagers discover they can cut glowing tattoos into their skin. Video games incorporate eruptions of light and blood.
The world changes—and yet it doesn’t.
You would think that taking the pain of every human being and making it so starkly visible—every drunken headache and frayed cuticle, every punctured lung and bowel pocked with cancer—would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, or at least ripples of pity, and for a while maybe it had, but now there were children who had come of age knowing nothing else …
The thing that sticks with you after reading the book is that even something as striking as the Illumination would not permanently change the world, but individuals could be changed—lives are affected and our actions have ripples across the universe that we may never understand. The Illumination, like the light that spills from the wounds, is both beautiful and devastating.
Disclosure: Pantheon Books provided an advance reader copy of The Illumination for review purposes.