Kevin Brockmeier creates a very believable world where every hurt–from hangnail to heart attack–shines with some sort of light, either shimmering, pulsing, flickering, blinding. At the very outset of the Illumination, as it was almost immediately called, Carol Ann Page watches a young accident victim die in the hospital bed next to hers–but not before the woman bequeaths her journal. The book contains love “post-its” (rather than love letters) left by her husband and recorded in the diary. Assuming the woman’s husband died as well, Carol Ann takes the book after her death and relishes the intimacy on the pages: “I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric.”
The novel then follows five other people as they come into possession of the journal. Its impact on their lives ranges from profound to superficial. There is the author of the love notes, photojournalist Jason Williford, not dead after all, who at this very outset of the Illumination seeks relief from his grief by cutting, watching the light bars pulse and fade as he self-mutilates. Then there is young Chuck Carter, only ten, but already an old soul. Possibly autistic, Chuck suffers bullying at school and abuse at home. Chuck sleeps with the book under his pillow where it “shone like a wounded animal. The light was sad and bright and comforting to him.” Ryan Shiffrin is next, a door-to-door Christian missionary pounding the world’s pavement for the sister who died of lung cancer; then, Nina the author and Morse, the homeless man. Each character’s story flickers with its own suffering and the diary, somehow, lightens their world for however short a time.
And the Illumination itself, even as a literary device, seems to portends so much. Yet though people notice the light, they seem unfazed. Some believed that “the light that had come to their injuries would herald a new age of reconciliation and earthly brotherhood” and that “making [pain] so starkly visible … would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, or at least ripples of pity, and for a while maybe it had” but “still they grew into their destructiveness, and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world.”
Brockmeier is masterful at making the magical seem perfectly believable and his prose is a gorgeous wash of sensory imagery. Take this passage as eighty-one-year old Ryan Shiffin’s slides into dementia: “He couldn’t wait to start high school next fall, and his hip was achiing with a soft lucidity, and his hands were stained with liver spots … but that did not keep him from catching the Frisbee his scoutmaster was throwing through the crisp November air, nor from knocking on a hundred doors each afternoon with his satchel and his leaflets, though he confessed he found it hard these days to tie his shoelaces and operate his telephone, and he had been away from home now for such a long time.” I find the cadence and imagery of such passages breathtaking.
As might be expected, I couldn’t reconcile the novel’s end and will, no doubt, return to it again and again. If the chick lit and page-turners of summer reading don’t satisfy after a while, this other-worldly story with gorgeous prose just might.
Next up: Elizabeth I, which was a previous “Next up” until I lost the book in the back seat of my car sometime in the last two weeks of school. Go figure. I’d read almost a quarter of the book and am enjoying her company.