Pared down to plot, Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel centers on six people who find themselves in possession of a notebook filled with curious one-liner love notes, at a time during which people’s wounds begin shining with light. What at first seems destined to be a bizarre melding of science fiction and romance is surprisingly neither, and also much more. The Illumination imagines a real universe of pain and pleasure, connection and disconnection and quest for meaning that defines human experience delightfully anew.
The perspective of Carol Ann Page, a data analyst in the hospital for a hand injury, opens the novel at the start of what becomes “the illumination”—or the time when, as Brockmeier strikingly puts it, “[e]verywhere, everywhere, in bars, locker rooms, parks, and emergency wards, the wounded were burning with light.” This explosion of intimacy — seeing inside another person’s pain and being confronted with how to respond — links humanity through the visibility of what has always been a shared experience: suffering.
Brockmeier successfully keeps the book from sinking into the realm of the weird by spotlighting five other characters in separate, third-person narratives. Each occupies a distinct pole on the spectrum of pain and painlessness, understanding and connection. Jason Williford, who dives and unexpectedly into pain as if immersion will keep his lost love alive, stands in opposition to another riveting figure, the writer Nina Poggione, who suffers from chronic, unrelenting mouth ulcers and desperately yearns for escape from pain and delivery into love and pleasure. Chuck Carter, a gentle and misunderstood young boy, and Morse Putnam Strawbridge, a homeless man who trades books on the street, occupy the periphery, alternately lost and found in their unusual “deep understanding” of others and life’s objects. The reluctant missionary, Ryan Shifrin, seeks connection to the truth of god’s presence through service, whereas divorced and lonely Carol Ann seeks it in love. Each one shines, beacon-like, through Brockmeier’s universe of light, reflecting facets of pain like glittering kaleidoscope patterns.
While one can become accustomed to the light, pain is something that can never be ignored.
The narratives are also connected by each character’s internalization of the notebook, which reveals a glowing window into love and pleasure as intimate as the events of the illumination. First seized by Carol Ann, and written for her hospital roommate by her husband, Jason, the notebook is filled with new reasons he loves his wife each day. As the missionary describes it: “I love it when you fall asleep while I’m driving, because it lets me feel like I’m protecting you. I love the way you’ll call me in the middle of the day to apologize for the littlest things. That was all there was to the book, page after page of I love you’s, yet something about it was curiously beguiling.” As much as imagining life inside the illumination, the book arrests and entrances all of its readers, propelling the narrative and uncovering the depth of its acute pleasure.
The Illumination takes us through 40-odd years of this deeply altered world, one that is nonetheless achingly familiar. While one can become accustomed to the light, pain is something that can never be ignored, “[t]he agony…nearly indistinguishable from bliss.” Brockmeier’s effortless prose and the book’s rich but frothy imagination reveal the longing of love and the light of pain to be beautiful and grotesque, real and unavoidable, and in the end, one and the same.
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