The Illumination ~ Kevin Brockmeier

This is one of those books that are subtitled “a novel”, as many are these days. But really, this is a collection of integrated short stories. The hook connection is a diary of observations a man jots down about his wife – a series of love notes, which are really very sweet. The people here live in a world where all the pains and fears and afflictions of man are made manifest by an illuminating light. One of the pieces is prefaced with a J.G. Ballard quote: “The world was beginning to flower into wounds.” These are people who are disaffected, lonely. This phenomenon suddenly appeared one day. No one knows why, and apparently it’s here to stay. So the little, very tender one-liners are strung together throughout the novel as a sort of counterpoint to the pain of the world. It’s an effective and thoughtful technique.

I love those three perfect moles on your shoulder – like a line of buttons.

I love the way you alphabetize the CD’s, but arrange the books by height.

I love the fact that I can keep telling you the things I love about you for the rest of our lives and I’ll never run out.

When her ex-husband sends her alimony check in a box wrapped in tape, Carol Ann Page takes a knife to open the box and nearly slices off her thumb (her husband has a way of fucking with her mind as a vengeful  and arbitrary tactic). In the hospital she’s next to a woman who has been in a serious car accident, Patricia Williford. They won’t tell her if her husband survived or not, but she suspects the worst. She clutches a book that turns out to be the love notes from her husband Jason, and tries to give it to Carol Ann, who won’t take it. In the morning, Patricia has died so as Carol Ann is discharged from the hospital, she decides to take the book after all. But as it turns out, Jason Williford survived, and wants his book back. He retrieves it.

Jason Williford is a photo-journalist, and after a long recovery he tentatively begins to work again. He comes across a group of late teenagers in the park, and begins to hang around with them. They are cutters, and Jason takes up the obsession himself. After spying on him for sometime, Chuck Carter, a neighborhood kid steals the book from Jason’s home.

The book then passes through the hands of another damaged soul whose wife has died, Ryan Shifrin. Then on to writer Nina Poggione, who finds the book in a hotel while on a book tour. The Nina section is wonderfully evocative, with its short stories within the short story of Nina. These are interspersed with Brockmeier’s story of her. The Nina section is somewhat of a departure from the others with Nina’s “Letters to the dead” and its echoes of the Williford love story, and the meta story of Nina’s book tour, one night stays in various cities, the stock questions from the audience. They’ve both (Nina and Brockmeier) been there, done that. There are long passages here of her taking and answering questions from her audience about her writing.

With her first book she had seen the world as a narrative, seen human lives as narratives. Now, instead, she saw them as stories. She wasn’t sure what had happened. Maybe she had experienced too much sickness. Maybe her sickness had made her less intelligent. Maybe her sickness had made her more sentimental. Maybe her sickness had returned her to the simple receptiveness of her childhood, when fitting people together seemed more important than taking them apart. No, it wasn’t that, she answered. She was just as interested in characters as she had ever been. But somehow she’d come to believe that characters were made up of their ideas and perceptions rather than their actions. A mistake, perhaps.

…along with the privilege of participating in other people’s dreams, and most of all the thrill she got, the feeling of wondrous correctness, when a handful of words she had been organizing and reorganizing suddenly fastened themselves together, forming a chain that seemed to tug at the page from some distant, less provisional place, as if through an accidental pattern of sounds, rhythms, and insinuations she had linked herself to the beginning of the world, a time when words were inseparable from what they named and you could not mention a thing without establishing it in front of your eyes.

That’s fucking inspiring. Ah, to be a writer. Brockmeier’s novel is filled with some lovely passages, especially in the transitions from one piece to another. These are universally passages of hope, dug out of the despair. Along with the ‘love notes’ of Jason Williford, these passages are worth the price of admission.

  • Outside there was the flexing coolness of a spring breeze. She stood there in it with her hand on her chest, the doctor beside her in his shirt and tie, before them a man with a look of breaking sadness in his eyes, all of them glowing in the darkness.[Carol Ann Page]
  • He felt as if he were in a plane banking out over the ocean. His life was passing below him like the distant creases of the waves. The white triangles of a hundred sails dotted the water. He could not remember where he was going. [Jason Williford]
  • He thought that his heart would stop beating from sadness. There it was, the sun, coming up just like always. [Chuck Carter]
  • And if a bomb were to land on them as they sang so humbly and sincerely, the splendor of their bodies would bathe the town in silver. And if every bomb flew from its arsenal, every body displayed its pain, the globe would catch fire in a Hiroshima of light. And maybe, from somewhere far away, God would notice it and return, and the cinders would receive Him like a hillside washed in the sun. [Ryan Shifrin]
  • And all of them, the whole great press of men and women, children and teenagers, jostling and coughing and checking their text messages – they believed their lives were like falling silver coins, flashing for merely an instant before they returned to the darkness.

Brockmeier has written an unflinching but ultimately hopeful novel, full of quite uncommon prose, given over to style and grace. Highly recommended.



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