Book review: ‘The Illumination’
Pantheon: 264 pp., $24.95
The everyday world is interrupted in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Illumination” by light: Suddenly, pain — human pain — begins to glow. Aches of arthritis, glares of sickness shine through bodies; cuts flare brilliant white.
It begins while Carol Ann Page is partially anesthetized after she’s cut her thumb so badly that she goes to the hospital. “[W]hen she saw the light shining out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating…. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to be that the light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from the inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought that she could live there and be happy.”
Happiness is a far-off state for Page. She’s divorced, disappointed. Her roommate during her recovery at the hospital is a woman who is just the opposite — her marriage is so in sync that her husband writes her love notes each morning, and she copies them all down into a notebook. But they’ve been in a terrible car accident, and the woman tells Page she couldn’t bear to ever read the notebook again and insists that she take it. Soon, the woman’s light grows blindingly bright, and then she dies.
Page keeps the notebook, partly to honor the woman, and partly out of emotional greed. “I love the scent of your hair just after you’ve taken a shower,” she reads. “I love the way, when I take my wedding ring off to do the dishes, you’ll put it on your finger and walk around the house saying, ‘I’m married to me, I’m married to me!’” She’s eavesdropping on a more perfect life, reading intimacies never meant to be shared. This becomes clear when the husband surfaces — he’s not dead, as Page assumed, and he’s furious at her transgression. He misses his wife desperately, and retrieves the notebook as a last memento.
The notebook and the light serve as counterpoints that propel the story, which moves from one character to the next as the notebook passes through their hands. Carol Ann Page is left behind as the second chapter focuses on Jason Williford, the angry widower. Later the notebook will pass into the possession of a boy, a missionary, an author and a homeless man. In some parts of the novel, the notebook is the primary focus; in others it’s incidental and the light and pain take precedence. We intersect with the characters like the notebook does, and see them in a time of discovery or change.
Williford, who wrote the love notes, is a photojournalist; in his stunned grief he finds a group of punk high school students who are trying self-mutilation. Their cuts and burns shine beautifully for his camera. His injuries from the accident were severe, but as they heal, he sees a kind of beauty in the pain the teens indulge in, and even enjoy. Williford forms a bond with one teen girl, the only real human connection he’s able to make after his wife’s death.
While the source of the light is physical pain, its rationale is not part of the novel. There are no scientists investigating the phenomenon, no researchers looking for explanations. It is simply an occurrence — a miracle? a doctor asks — that changes our world. It is not unlike 9/11, an incident that seemed first to bring about irrevocable change, yet seemed to leave us moving as always through a familiar, yet slightly altered, landscape.
The novel’s light makes for a new beauty in being human. But since the light reveals hurts — from the insistent gleam of an old man’s hip to the soft halo of a college student’s hangover — the question arises of what it means to see it. Does the light demand a new kind of empathy? And if so, does this empathy have limits?
That is a question the missionary, unable to get over the death of his sister, must face. He is the picture of generosity and servitude, even as he questions whether he really believes. He spreads the word, literally, pamphleting in poor neighborhoods and eventually throughout the developing world. But how far can words reach? Can they help when someone is riddled by deep and unmaskable pain?
As these well-rendered stories accrue, questions of words and language surface in patterns. Two characters are nearly mute, and the author, on book tour, can barely read for the pain that shines from her injured mouth. One finds an unusual lifeline in books, and the story the injured author reads is a hopeful fable that cribs from the love notes. The original notebook doesn’t survive — each set of hands it passes through value it less and less — but the love it conveyed echoes again and again, a recurring refrain in counterpoint to the constant, shining pain.
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