The world is filled with pain, but most of the time we do not see it. We hide our own pains and overlook those of others. We learn to unsee pain because not doing so might itself be painful or simply uncomfortably intimate. Even when we do see the pain that surrounds us, we quickly forget it (as we have so easily forgotten Japan, Haiti, and so many other global catastrophes) or discount it, telling ourselves that those who are suffering deserve it or do not feel it like we do. In The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier creates a world full of pain that demands to be seen and thereby requires readers to rethink this all too easy blindness to pain. This world is vivid and memorable, but ultimately it beautifies pain in troubling ways and leaves the reader with a dismal vision of the world.
The book opens as, suddenly and for no clear reason, pain becomes visible as light. Cuts emit light, internal injuries or diseases glow through the skin, and even minor scratches shine a bit. All people can see these pains, on themselves and others; some individuals can see even more. Carol Ann, for instance, hospitalized after accidentally cutting herself on the night when pain first became illuminated, describes watching a television talk show and seeing how, when guests were "blindsided by grief, a kind of nimbus would settle around them, a colorless shimmering cloud that seemed to be exhaled directly from their pores, fainter even than the light from a hangnail" (p. 18); Chuck, a child bullied by classmates and disliked by his "pretend dad" (who calls him "a crazy little retard" (p. 88)), sees not only humans' pains but also those of animals and objects. This phenomenon quickly becomes known as The Illumination and starts to change the world in many small ways. For instance, in hospital settings the practice of asking patients to gauge their pain on a scale of one to ten is done away with. Who needs to ask such a question when the level of pain is clearly visible to all?
Structured as a series of linked short stories, the book describes several characters' experiences in this newly illumined world as they struggle either with their own pains (physical and emotional) or seek to help others who are dealing with pain. Most do not know each other but are connected by their ownership, however brief, of a journal that has been filled with love notes written by one of the characters, Jason, to his wife. Every day before she died, he left her a sticky note with a new note describing something he loved about her; every day, she wrote down his note in her journal. These entries are scattered throughout the book and are, for me anyway, the highlight of the book:
I love the way chocolate makes your eyes light up.
I love hearing you try to defend Hall and Oates.
I love your compassionate heart—your big, sloppy, sentimental heart. (p. 115)
The featured journal is the last of seven books containing these notes and it goes through the hands of every major character, functioning as the connecting thread between them. Each character who keeps the journal, no matter how briefly, is affected by its messages of love in some way. It becomes a central feature of the book, at least as memorable as The Illumination.
Neither the characters nor the plot are the point of the book, however. At the end of each story, the reader must move on, often getting no closure and never returning to that character. This is disappointing and somewhat frustrating. I want to see what happens to the characters, to see more of how The Illumination affects the world. I want to know how Jason continues to deal with his wife's death, what happens to Chuck as he grows up, and whether Carol Ann, the first to have found the journal, ever finds a love like the one she reads about in it. But as soon as I started to become invested in their lives, Brockmeier shifted the narrative to someone new. Instead of completing the characters' stories or providing a cohesive, overarching plot, he offers a meditation on pain, beauty, and love, illustrated by The Illumination and the journal, both of which make pain and love highly visible and sometimes surprisingly beautiful. As a result, the book never fully coheres and the reading experience feels somewhat fragmented.
However, this attention to ideas and imagery is also one of the book's strengths, since it highlights Brockmeier's language, which is beautiful and poetic. Brockmeier regularly presents the reader with striking juxtapositions between pain and beauty in his descriptions of The Illumination: "a glory of leukemia" (p. 33), "a holocaust of light" (p. 164), "a Hiroshima of light" (p. 170). More extensive descriptions of The Illumination provide even greater aesthetic rewards. One striking example of this juxtaposition appears in the final chapter. Morse, a homeless man, spends much of time observing the pains of others, emphasizing the beauty of pain as a result of The Illumination:
Sometimes, on the gray-soaked days of February and March, when the sun seemed to dissolve into the clouds like an antacid tablet, he would peer down the street and see nothing but a gleaming field of injuries, as if the traumas and diseases from which people suffered had become so powerful, so hardy, that they no longer needed their bodies to survive. From the doors of shops and art galleries came strange floating candles of heart pain and arthritis. Stray muscle cramps spilled across the sidewalk like sparks scattering from a bonfire. Neural diseases fluttered in the air like leaves falling through a shaft of light. A great fanning network of leukemia rose out of a taxi and drifted incandescently into an office building, and he watched as it vanished into the bricks, a shining angel of cancer. (p. 225)
These vivid images sharpen the edges of pain and beauty, pressing them upon the reader, making it difficult to look away while also refusing a simplistic reduction of pain to horror or of beauty to pleasure.
These images are not simply attractive, though, but raise difficult questions about the ethics of beautifying pain. This can be seen even more clearly in the experience of Ryan, a traveling evangelist and missionary. He repeatedly encounters death and destruction, though surviving himself, and as a result has the most opportunities to witness such juxtapositions between beauty and horror. In one of these instances, Ryan takes cover from a tornado in a building that is destroyed, leaving him the only survivor. Here he describes the carnage:
Everywhere there were bodies, radiating from their hands and legs, chests and genitals, faces and stomachs. Their flesh presented a starmap of wounds, glorious and incomprehensible. He felt like a man from some ancient tribal legend who had angered the gods and been doomed to walk the constellations. (pp. 162-3)
In scenes like this, Brockmeier reveals the beauty that may be found among death and suffering, indicating that both in a terrible tragedy and in life's daily pains and sorrows there is something "glorious and incomprehensible" about the world, something larger than the individual. However, this beauty is also rather grotesque, founded as it is on agony and unhappiness, and Brockmeier does little to address the ethical question of what it means to find beauty in ugliness and pain. Because he does not directly address this issue, the language itself, so aesthetically pleasing, encourages the reader to, once again, look past the pain. The pain is transmuted into beauty and gets lost in the process. As Morse notes following the above description, on sunny days it becomes harder to see the light. He concludes, "It was people—they were the problem. Their bodies got in the way" (p. 225). In its beauty, the language also seems to look past the people at the light and makes this attention to pain that much less human in the process.
Because of this simultaneous emphasis on and dismissal of pain, this beautification of pain is, seemingly paradoxically, the source of the book's most fundamental ugliness and pessimism about humanity. The book jacket asks, "What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?" At first glance, this question might suggest a hopeful reversal, a means of turning life's pains and sorrows into something more rewarding. What if, it seems to ask, we were able to salvage beauty, joy, and love from the pains of life? After reading The Illumination, however, it becomes clear that this is not Brockmeier's intent. Instead of converting pain to joy, The Illumination provides yet another opportunity for people to ignore each other—in both their pain and their beauty—since, after the initial shock of the change, the world largely goes on as it had before. People go back to work, relationships fail and succeed, wars continue. Those who do pay special attention are abnormal (or extraordinary, if you like) in one way or another—cutters, homeless men, religious missionaries, abused and bullied boys who choose silence as a response to the world. In an interview with Southern Literary Review, Brockmeier says, "Logic and experimentation allow us to understand something about the basic ground rules of existence, but it's my intuition that those rules could change suddenly, right under our feet, and the universe would be no more or less strange than it already is." This philosophy is very apparent in The Illumination. The world has changed utterly and yet most people very quickly return to their ordinary cruelties and kindnesses, still unwilling or unable to see.
In this return to normalcy, The Illumination, despite its beauty, despite the light, becomes rather too dark for me. Its insistence on the pains of the world, its sadness and loneliness, is overwhelming. Characters occasionally say that it's good to be alive or that there are redeeming elements of humanity, but those are never felt so strongly as their pains. One character, for instance, says:
Sometimes they rose up inside her, these moments of fierce happiness, kindling out of their own substance like a spark igniting a mound of grass. It was a joy to be alive, a strange and savage joy, and she stood there in the warmth and destruction of it knowing it could not last. (p. 37)
But, almost immediately following this, she also says, "The world was unreliable. The world could turn on a dime. It was a joy to be alive when it was a joy to be alive, and it was a terror to be alive when it wasn't. What else had she ever learned?" (pp. 37-8). Brockmeier consistently focuses not on the joys of life, but on the terrors and, more commonly, the small heartbreaks of life. As a result, the visual beauty of The Illumination never translates into other beauties like love, human connection, or joy. Even the journal, literally filled with love, seems unable to combat the pain that defines these characters' lives, functioning instead as a reminder of love that is lost or out of reach. In the final story, Morse, the homeless man who is the final owner of the journal, experiences the promise and disappointment of the love he sees there:
The diary seemed to broadcast its message straight through the plastic, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, pulsing like a beacon . . . He had expected it to be effortless, expected his love to ease right out of him, as gently and clearly as notes from a piano, but soon enough he realized it was impossible. It couldn't be done, or at least he couldn't do it. He did not love anyone, he only understood them, and who in this world would choose understanding over love? (p. 245)
Love, in this passage and in the book as a whole, takes second place to understanding and to pain, and, although the book makes it clear that love is something to be valued, it is also something that is exceedingly rare and difficult to find or create.
Ultimately, I found The Illumination to be intriguing but not moving, lovely but not compelling. In the Southern Literary Review interview, Brockmeier says,
I imagine that the book has the tone of a parable without the shape of a parable. It attends carefully, if strangely, to a number of phenomena—pain, love, beauty, disease, light—but I'm not sure that it offers a lesson about them, or at least one that is easily separable from the vessel of the narrative.
This is an excellent description of where the book succeeds and where it fails. Although Brockmeier hopes that the book provides a "burned sense of clarity," it seems rather more murky than that to me, never quite settling on a cohesive attitude toward these phenomena. Brockmeier may attend to "pain, love, beauty, disease, light," but he fails to truly illuminate.
Christy Tidwell teaches first-year writing, American literature, and world literature at The University of Texas at Arlington. She recently completed a dissertation examining the ways in which feminist science fiction represents women doing science and has an article forthcoming in Extrapolation.