Published: February 2011
Finally got around to it: March 2011
The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination. No one could disguise his pain anymore. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone’s impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in a glory of leukemia.
An interesting thing happens when reading Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination: you quickly become lost in the painterly way he covers his world in light; using thin needlework stitching, thick roll-on strokes, or igniting someone’s skeleton in a million points of the brightest white imaginable, their core shining through their skin as if stripped clean of their top layer, Brockmeier deceives the reader in a subtle, but immensely affecting way. After so many pages of lovingly constructed imagery you realize, as I’m sure he intended, that you’ve been deriving pleasure from nothing less than the agony and suffering of others—revelling in the one-of-a-kind beauty of experience that is found only through pain, described with carefully constructed and moving use of metaphor.
Adopting a structure similar to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, The Illumination is a novel told in six modestly connected parts. At exactly 8:17 one Friday night, every wound, every sore, every broken or damaged part of every broken and damaged human on the planet begins to shine from within with a luminous white light. In that instant, all the pain we’ve worked so hard to keep to ourselves—all the agonies, large and small, we fight to bury and repress—is made visible, as obvious as the stars in the night sky. Pain, a constant in everyone’s life to varying degrees, becomes a measurable quantity in the eyes of others.
Structured loosely around a journal of love notes from a husband to his wife that makes its way through the hands of the novel’s six protagonists, The Illumination is a study of expectations and juxtapositions: the journal, an object meant for the two lovers and no one else, remains an artefact of something they’ve lost since the Illumination took hold of the world—the need to express a beauty that is pure and untainted. The journal is ratty, faded, falling apart, yet it retains its original intent—to express love and devotion. The Illumination, on the other hand, is the performance art of an unseen, unspoken higher power—an unexplainable phenomenon gifted to the world as a helping hand, to encourage the expression of one’s inner beauty and repressed pain amongst a society that has forgotten what it means to be open and honest about the terrible, amazing, stunning atrocities we take joy in and feel repulsed by at the same time:
Now the worshippers were on their feet, performing a hymn he knew by heart, their voices flowing just alongside the melody, as if tracing the banks of a stream. 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.
In some ways, the novel feels a themed mosaic of short narratives. The six lives contained within are drastically different from one another, but as the journal passes through them—either overtly, as an object with life-altering reverence, or subtly, as something that passes through their lives like a metaphor in three-dimensions—Brockmeier uses the Illumination as a counterweight, carving his characters’ pain in swatches, slivers, and harsh-light-of-day strokes. While beautiful in the way they forge connective threads between all people of all races in every corner of the world, the light that shines from within is also disturbing, threatening, and in the end, nowhere near as beautiful as the thousand little ways one man managed to express his love to his wife with nothing but a pen and some paper.
The Illumination is not as spiritual a book as its name might imply. It’s not devoid of such connotations, but its merit is in its artistry—in the way it paints the world as a Terry Riley-esque chance-oriented symphony, the light from within playing against other people, other surfaces, with different chord and key combinations. As one person’s entire being is lit up like the lights at a movie premiere—a power chord to break one’s mind from all distractions—the slow trill of a snake of light arcing through a carefully stitched incision cuts through the cacophony, presenting a light just as bright as any other. Because all pain is not equal, but no amount of pain can be dismissed.