I was so looking forward to reading Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. I loved his last novel,The Brief History of the Dead, and I could not imagine not liking the new one. The unthinkable has happened, however.
The Illumination begins on a day when, for no apparent reason, pain becomes visible. Pain in the body--from injury or illness--begins to emit light. There is no more hiding medical conditions like cancer; they glow unmistakably. Psychic pain also glows, although in a more diffuse way, from the head.
The book also begins with an accident. Carol Ann Page cuts her thumb trying to open a box her ex-husband sent her and wrapped with packing tape as if it contained the golf of Fort Knox. When she goes into surgery to have it repaired, she can see the light.
When she goes back to her room, a roommate arrives, another woman. She has a bound journal with her that contains all the love notes her husband has left her since they married. Every morning on the fridge, he left a note about something he loved about her. They had been in the car together when they had a horrible accident; since the hospital staff will not answer her questions about him, she assumes he has died, and offers the book to Carol Ann.
Carol Ann Page declines, but when the woman dies in the night (her abdomen lighting up so brightly it shines right through the covers on the bed), Carol Ann decides to take it. It is only a week later she discovers that the husband survived and was frantic to find the book. Carol Ann, who seemed to be on the rebound from her divorce, is devastated by having made the man suffer.
The most interesting thing to me about this chapter was Carol Ann noticing that the woman’s body continued to glow after she was pronounced dead, which seemed to indicate pain survives death, at least for a little while.
The next chapter moves to the man, Jason Williford, who is barely able to function after his wife’s death. A freelance photographer, when he has recovered enough, he goes out and starts taking pictures, documenting The Illumination. He comes across some teenagers who cut themselves, which makes for some interesting images. He falls in with the group when he discovers that creating physical pain blots out the pain of his wife's death.
The descriptions of Jason self-inflicting pain were just too painful for me to read; my head would have been glowing, had The Illumination been real. While the writing is superb and the interlinked stories interesting, after reading this review in Salon, I feel I don’t need to finish the book.
I’m sorry Mr. Brockmeier, but I’m just not up to taking on your elegant examination of pain. And if you’re squeamish, I wouldn’t recommend it to you either. But if any of this intrigues you, I urge you to go for it, because Kevin Brockmeier has got to be one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and talented writers working today.