The Illumination, book review

The Illumination

Kevin Brockmeier

Pantheon, $24.95, 272 pages

Imagine this: Tomorrow night, just after dinner, every injury and illness all over the world, from the smallest shaving cut to a terminal disease, begins to emit visible light. Your headache, that eczema hidden beneath your shirt sleeves, even the barely noticeable arthritis in your hands each morning — from now on, everyone can see the places where you hurt. And you can see everyone else’s.

Arkansas native Kevin Brockmeier creates such a miracle in his third novel, “The Illumination” — also the name given to the startling new global phenomenon, which occurs not long after one of the characters, Carol Ann Page, accidentally lops off the tip of her thumb.

Hospitalized when the Illumination hits the news, Carol Ann watches television footage of the New York Stock Exchange, where “silver sparks appeared to swirl through the bodies of the traders.” As her doctor turns away from her, she notices the “nape of his neck, where a hundred threads of light were twisting like algae in an underwater current.”

A car wreck survivor brought into Carol Ann’s hospital room glows with “a wound so bright” that it shines through the blankets that cover her. She tells Carol Ann about her husband, believed killed in the wreck, and how he used to leave notes on the refrigerator, giving her a new reason, each day, why he loved her:

I love those three perfect moles on your shoulder — like a line of buttons. I love your lopsided smile. I love the way you can be singing a song, and all of a sudden it will turn into a different song, and you’ll keep on singing and won’t even realize it.

Before she dies, the woman gives Carol Ann a diary she copied her husband’s notes into. It becomes the link between the six characters and chapters in “The Illumination,” though as it’s passed from one person to the next, it’s not so much the main focus as it is a reappearing collection of prompts about love and kindness.

Which is a good thing, because Brockmeier’s world is not at all a benevolent one. Its characters lead lives of isolation, sadness and mistreatment. Surrounded by bullies and thugs, insensitive doctors and mean-spirited partners, they long for connections that rarely happen.

Carol Ann, for instance, “could extract any line from the book, any line at all, and find more kindness in it than she had heard from her husband in their four years of marriage.”

When 10-year-old Chuck, already a veteran of vicious teasing and bullying at home and at school, spots the journal, he rescues it from harm in a way that, sadly, may never happen to him.

Morse, a homeless man, twice beaten by a gang who leave him for dead, defiantly maintains his visibility as a used book dealer. A writer, Nina, nurses an incurable physical ailment that has disconnected her from a normal life.

Jason, the husband of the woman who died in the car wreck, survives, but so lost to his once-joyful self that he eventually seeks out a band of teenagers who teach him the art of cutting and forgetting.

Yet "The Illumination" is far from bleak, partly because the language Brockmeier uses to describe the lives of his characters and the new phenomenon they witness is so precise and dazzling. Emanating from its pages, an ever-present light flashes, splinters, bursts, radiates, and sparkles, creating “an explosion of golden mist,” “the air around the edges of a flame,” “a starfield of spinning dots.” The newly dead emit "only a cool spectral glow, like phosphorescent moss in a cave.”

Themes from Brockmeier’s earlier books, especially 2006’s “The Brief History of the Dead,” reappear in various forms here, including the question of human suffering and why God allows it, the importance of books and stories, and the part memory plays between the dead and the living.

If the Illumination fails to change human nature — the bruises radiating through Chuck’s clothing don’t mean his missionary visitor will follow “the impulse to pick him up and carry him away,” anymore than the light leaving Morse’s beat-up body “in a flood of silver” causes passersby to stop and help him — it’s not the end of the world. Hope flourishes in the characters' shy insistence on reaching out to each other and the delicate, nearly supernatural connections forged between them.

Brief encounters, synchronicities, books that appear out of nowhere, snatches of thoughts from passersby, secret reservoirs of lost memories, buried hopes and ideals, aching needs, loneliness and fear — countless glimpses of bright worlds within add up at the end of this resplendent book to leave us with a different kind of illumination:

It's the small gesture that matters, not the megawatt flash, not "the sun…but some small familiar object." Not "a grand mystery" forecast in the Book of Revelation, but a worn notebook of heartfelt notes that travels from house to house: "I love the idea of getting old and forgetful together. I love how nervous you get when I'm driving. I love the poems you wrote in junior high."

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