Kevin Brockmeier’s previous novel, The Brief History of the Dead, teamed a high-wire fantasy concept — that the dead moved on to a new life in an unnamed city, and resided there so long as someone on earth remembered them (which, in the novel’s case, was just one person, the last surviving human of a species-erasing virus) — with a literary devotion to language and nuance. It was Michael Crichton with an M.F.A., or Stephen King with a lot more lyricism. Though it never quite hung together (it began as a short story, and felt stretched as a novel), it certainly showcased Brockmeier’s talent and his flair for the unconventional.
After a collection of short stories in 2008 (The View From The Seventh Layer), Brockmeier returns with another novel, The Illumination. The book begins with Carol Ann Page, who cuts her thumb with a carving knife while opening a package from her ex-husband. She goes to the hospital and gets stitched up when, inexplicably, a light begins glowing from her wound. Soon there are reports of this mysterious occurrence happening everywhere. Television is filled with images of this light — “boxers opening up radiant cuts on each other’s faces”; “a team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing iridescent circles in the air”; a news anchor with “something like the flat pulse of heat lightning flashing from his temples.” Before long, everyone is accustomed to seeing one another’s pain borne out on their bodies, a twinning of beauty and hurt in resplendent light.
This could easily devolve into a gimmick in the hands of a lesser writer, or played for easy sentimentality or blunt allegory. Brockmeier is craftier. He traces this phenomena through the lives of six characters, starting with Carol Ann and moving on to a widowed photographer, a ten year old child, a missionary, writer and street vendor. Their narratives interlock through a journal between husband and wife detailing the most private things they love about one another — prosaic observations like I love seeing your number appear on my cell phone or I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height, as well as more intimate ones like I love the concavities behind your knees, as soft as the skin of a peach. The journal falls into the hands of these six characters, and they reflect on it as they sort out their pain and how it shapes their existence.
And there is a lot of pain. These characters are well-acquainted with anguish — death and cancer; loneliness and rejection; bullying and violence — but Brockmeier avoids bathos by locating a resilient dignity in each of them. It helps that he knows how to craft a sentence. (He’s also quite a stylist — every sentence in the section on Chuck Carter, the 10-year-old, is exactly ten words.) There is something redemptive in being able to write so skillfully about loss; the evangelist, a man named Ryan Shifrin caught in a crisis of faith, thinks of God’s love as “fluttering like a bird around the margins of [humanity’s] wretchedness. It was a sad little robin of a word, His love. It fled at the first sign of cold weather. Its bones were hollow and filled with air. Anyone could see how feeble it was, how insubstantial.”
Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, wrote a book called The Wounded Healer which argued that ministers must identify and embrace their own suffering to be of any value to others. Suffering, he contended, is the basis for healing. “Those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen,” he wrote, “are doomed to live a supercilious, boring and superficial life.” This is not a problem for the six characters in The Illumination. Their lives may ripple with pain, but in wrestling with that pain they escape superficiality. Brockmeier, to his great credit, does the same.
(Hat tip to Erik Brueggemann for the recommendation.)