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52 Books #15: The Illumination

April 22, 2011

Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination (Jonathan Cape) starts with the strange event which gives the novel its title. Carol Anne Page is slicing open a parcel sent by her ex-husband when she cuts her thumb. Along with the blood, light wells from the wound. In the hospital where she’s treated (and where the thumb is eventually amputated), she sees that this phenomenon has affected all the other patients: pain is visible as light, even down to her doctor’s neck injury. In the adjacent bed lies Patricia, who has been in a car accident. She has brought with her a diary filled with notes of love her husband has left for her, one affectionate Post-It note stuck to the fridge every morning, which she has copied down into her book: ‘I love the concavities behind your knees, as soft as the skin of a peach. I love how disgusted you get by purées: “Who would do that too a poor defenceless soup?” I love waking up on a wi ntry morning, opening the curtains, then crawling back under the covers with you and watching the snow fall.‘ (p.40): sentimental love distilled into page after crammed page. After Patricia dies — “The light arising from the woman’s bed slowly dwindled until her skin held only a cool spectral glow, like phosphorescent moss in a cave” (p.13) — Carol-Ann takes the dead woman’s journal home with her and grows obsessed with the story of the two lovers’ communications to one another. Thus the two unifying strands of the book: pain manifesting as light, and the passing hand-to-hand of this manuscript.

The Illumination is told through six different stories, linked hand-to-hand by the lovers’ journal. Patricia Williford’s bereaved husband Jason, a photographer, first retrieves it, then it is stolen from his home by Chuck Carter, a painfully shy young boy who sees even inanimate objects burn with an ’emotional light’, seeming to transfer onto these items the sufferings he endures at the hands of an uncaring step-dad (or is he?) and school bullies. From Chuck, the book passes to a missionary, Ryan Shifrin; Nina Poggione, a writer suffering through her public-speaking engagements with a series of mouth ulcers; and finally to Morse Putnam Strawbridge, a homeless man who sells books to earn a little money and who is involved in a horrific and violent incident at the start of his section (shades here of David Means’s many stories about homeless characters in The Spot and Assorted Fire Events).

This portmanteau structure makes for some unlikely overlaps between characters’ stories, and means that The Illumination, pinned together by its two unifying motifs, doesn’t quite function as a novel exactly. That isn’t to its disadvantage, however: although each of these stories catches its central character at a moment of change, the individual sections are long enough and so precisely observed that to expand them further than their forty-odd pages would have risked overegging them. In many of the stories, too, the crux of the piece is the same: a change in circumstances complemented or complicated by the arrival in the character’s life of an ambiguous new presence. For Jason Williford, it’s a young girl who teaches him how to cut himself with a razor to release the pain “he would not allow… to forsake him”; for both Nina Poggione and Carol-Ann Page it’s a would-be suitor who misunderstands, or chooses to, a significant aspect of their personality. And for Strawbridge in the final section it’s one of the thugs who beats him up, in a case of mistaken identity, and who guiltily sells him books filled with five- and ten-dollar bills.

In a different kind of book, Brockmeier would have taken the reader on some kind of quest to discover the ‘meaning’ of the light/pain phenomenon, or built up more of a tension before it started to manifest itself. What I liked most about The Illumination was its depiction of how rapidly ‘The Illumination’ is named, categorised and, in some respects, normalised (shades here, as people cast around for what to call the phenomenon, of Don Delillo’s ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in White Noise). The best expression of this comes in Nina Poggione’s chapter, where the writer composes a fable-like story — partly inspired by her reading of the Willifords’ love-notes — about bereaved lovers posting notes to their loved ones into cracks in the earth and receiving answers from beneath the ground. So here we have a sort of concatenated or compounded mythmaking: as we read the fictional account of people dealing with a fictional affliction, Poggione composes a fictional fictional account of people dealing with a fictional fictional affliction (but in her fable the Illumination exists as a fact too). It’s much less leaden than that makes it sound: her ‘real’ story and the fable she’s writing are cleverly interleaved and oddly moving.

The Illumination is gorgeously written throughout — perhaps you can’t make life much better for yourself as a writer than devise a scenario where descriptions of pain and of light can be interwoven — with a clarity of prose that lets the stories breathe and gives full scope to the emotional clout of each of them. This is rarely in the more obvious twists (Jason kissing Melissa the self-harm girl, or Morse Strawbridge’s tormentors catching up with him a second time) but in the slow-paced, stately unravelling of tensions — each of the six characters seems to make a long exhalation, a sigh of relief.

The exception is Chuck Carter, whose story is the most wince-inducingly horrific one and goes maybe a little too far in the depredations it inflicts on the character: one too many bullies and sneery adults. Yet it’s also the most beautiful in some ways, Chuck’s emotional problems leading him to see everything in the world as possessing feelings, from books to “the big plasdtic upside-down water jug at school… Everything was helpless and neededs to be saved from harm… Wherever he looked, he could see the light in things.” Brockmeier helps us see the same.

Other reading in Week #15:

Strange Attractor #4 (Strange Attractor Press)

Barry Miles London Calling (Atlantic)

Fernando Pessoa The Book of Disquiet (Serpent’s Tail)

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