[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Two themes drive Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. The first is a fantasy motif, placing this novel right on the line that separates the best fantasy from the genre-that-won’t-admit-it’s-a-genre, i.e., the literary novel. This motif is the Illumination itself: beginning at 8:17 on a Friday night, every spot of pain on every human’s body begins to shine, a bright light emanating from the impacted heel of a woman in high heels, a cavity in the mouth of a politician, the sore spot on the back of a constant reader’s neck. The Illumination is so bright in cases of serious injury that doctors and nurses need to wear sunglasses to attempt to revive a patient in heart failure. There is no explanation for this strange light. Some think that it will end all wars, as the blaze of the suffering of others will be too much for soldiers to handle, but alas, our capacity for the suffering of others seems to be more or less infinite.
The second theme is the journal Patricia Williford keeps, the one in which she records her husband’s daily love notes to her. Jason Williford read once somewhere that, if you could find just one thing to love about your spouse every day, your marriage would last forever. He started looking for that one thing every day, and posted a mash note on the refrigerator every morning. Patricia wrote them all down in her journal.
When Patricia and Jason are in an automobile accident, Patricia winds up sharing a room with Carol Ann Page, who has sliced her thumb so badly while attempting to open a package (one wound up in layers of packing tape, the kind lined through with threads for extra security; her ex-husband’s idea of a joke, as it’s how he’s wrapped up her alimony check) that she has to have it reattached, requiring a hospital stay. Patricia is certain that Jason has died in the accident, and therefore gives Carol Ann her journal, saying that she could never bear to read it again. Then Patricia dies in a blaze of light – heart failure, organ failure, all her physicians know is that they can barely see to tend to her. Carol Ann keeps the notebook, and reads it a page at a time. In one of the saddest lines in the book, she thinks, “The fact that the two of them were no longer kissing each other’s shoulders… it seemed like a frightening mistake. And even if there was a Heaven… and even if they were together in it, that would not make it right.”
Patricia was wrong; her husband survived, and he wants the journal back. Ultimately, Jason finds that it is in Carol Ann’s hands, and he retrieves it, full of anger, injured, bereft. Now the novel turns to telling his story, telling of his life after both the Illumination and the accident, explaining from his perspective how the world works and doesn’t work. He tries to resume his work as a photographer, and takes some amazing photographs of teenagers slicing their own skin open in order to see the light shining forth from the wounds. In the process, he winds up with an 18-year-old roommate, Melissa, whose parents have kicked her out after finding out about her hobby of self-mutilation through the publication of one of Jason’s photographs. Melissa discovers the journal, which once again plays a part in the lives of the characters, until it again disappears, and the story follows it on.
In this way, following the journal, we learn of the lives of Chuck, a child in grade school who has given up speaking; Ryan, a missionary; Nina, a writer who adapts some of the lines from the journal to her own novel; and Morse, a street person. Each of these individuals has his or her entire story told, the day-to-dayness of their lives, how they see things, how they feel about how they exist. Their lives are all touched by the words in the journal and by the light of injury and sickness, all in their own way.
Brockmeier tells his episodic story with words of enormous beauty, words that are so arranged that they can pierce straight through to your soul. The musing of the religious Ryan, for instance, on pain and injury and the Illumination: “Perhaps the light He had brought to their injuries, or allowed the world to bring, was simply a new kind of ornamentation. The jewelry with which He decorated His Lovers. The oil with which He Anointed His sons.” There is no explanation for the Illumination, and there is no explanation for human suffering, Brockmeier seems to be saying, and God keeps His silence.
And if that was the case, Ryan thought, if it was our suffering that made us beautiful to God, and if that was why He allowed it to continue, then how dare He, how dare He, and why, why, why, why, why? He loved us, or so He said, but what did His love mean? What was it good for? It didn’t change anything, it didn’t improve anything, it only lingered in the distance, fluttering like a bird around the margins of their wretchedness.
Why is there suffering in the world if God loves us? No one has ever been able to answer this question to the satisfaction of most of us. Brockmeier asks it, too, and eloquently.
I’ve been a fan of Kevin Brockmeier ever since I read A Brief History of the Dead. He writes with grace, wit and beauty, and he never shies away from the hard questions. The Illumination is a great example of his quirky imagination. I look forward to the next.