fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsKevin Brockmeier’s The IlluminationThe Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

[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.

~Terry Weyna

Kevin Brockmeier’s The IlluminationA little while ago, Terry discussed Kevin Brockmeier’s latest novel, The Illumination, for “Edge of the Universe.” Having just finished it myself, I’m still thrilled she introduced Brockmeier to our audience, as he’s one of my favorite relatively new authors. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Illumination as much as Terry did, or as much as previous Brockmeier novels.

The titular event, the Illumination itself, occurs one day when suddenly all our wounds, all our pain, are made visible via light. Our first introduction to the event happens when Carol Page nearly severs the tip of her thumb when opening a package  (her alimony check) her ex-husband maliciously layered in reams of packing tape. At the hospital, “she saw the light shining out of her incision… steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting… it seemed to her the light was not falling over her wound, or even infusing it, but radiating through it from another world. She thought that she could live there and be happy.”

It’s a beautiful introduction to how the world has suddenly changed, and Brockmeier’s trademark prose remains a strength throughout the book:  precise, elegant, sharply etched, poignant, and evocative. There are just some gorgeous lines and images in here in here, as when a dying character, coughing up blood, asks her caretaker brother, “Who brought the garden inside?” because “she saw the seven stained tissues on her bedside table as roses, the same lustrous red as the Apothecaries their mother used to cultivate when they were kids.” Or when another character walks through the aftermath of a tornado, where “everywhere there were bodies, radiating from their hands and legs, chests and genitals, faces and stomachs.  Their flesh presented a starmap of wounds… He felt like a man from some ancient tribal legend who had angered the gods and been doomed to walk the constellations.”

Throughout The Illumination, then, we bear witness to all sorts of pains: cancer, old age, self-mutilation/cutting, mental illness, the resulting pains of individual beatings and wide-scale natural disasters. Pains both obvious and hidden, the kind we all carry around us in our non-Illuminated world, as do our friends, lovers, neighbors, strangers.

The concept is genius, the prose gorgeous. Where the book breaks down for me is in its structure and its too-constant tone. Structurally, the book is divided into six stories. A side character in one appears as a main character in another, all bound together by a physical object that moves throughout the stories: a journal kept by a woman of her husband’s daily expressions of love: “I love concavities behind your knees,” “I love how disgusted you get by purees,” and so on. The diary is a bit clumsy as a binding prop, and somewhat overly-sentimental or sappy, and while there are some nice lines within it, I can’t say there are too many memorable ones and it has a sameness to it that wearies a bit by the end. So rather than a novel, really what we have are a collection of short stories sharing a basic narrative thread and setting. And as with most collections of short stories, your mileage will vary. My favorite by far was the one centered on the aforementioned brother of the dying girl. It’s not only the best here, but I’d imagine it would be the best or at least among a very short list of the best in any collected anthology of differently-authored stories. Though the book didn’t hold up as a whole for me, I’d still recommend getting it out of the library and reading at least this one story; it’s well worth it.

Individually, the other stories run the spectrum from a bit slow and difficult to care about to relatively strong, though none near the quality of my favorite. As a whole, though, like the embedded journal, they have a bit of the sameness to them:  isolated characters in pain, a somewhat resigned sadness of tone, characters who cannot speak or do so only minimally.  I’m a fan of quiet, but there was a bit too much quiet in The Illumination for me, or at least, too much of a same sort of quiet.  At one point an author character thinks “she’d come to believe that characters were made up of their ideas and perceptions rather than their actions,” and I wonder if that’s Brockmeier a little self-concerned at what he’s doing here (there’s a lovely gem of a story embedded in that story, by the way).

I absolutely love the concept of The Illumination. And I love the idea of much it, as well as its sense of subtlety, the beautiful imagery and language, the feeling that it’s all made of glass spun so thin it would blow away if handled too strongly. But it didn’t pull me in, didn’t hold my attention throughout, and so I can’t recommend it as a book. Still, I strongly recommend reading it for the one story. And if you’re going to pick it up for that story, you may as well start from the top (the beginning is quite good though Carol’s story is one of the ones that didn’t do it for me) and see how you like it. If you do, just keep going. If you don’t, don’t return it until you read Ryan’s story. It’s also a beautiful closing paragraph.

And by all means, even if you do not like it, pick up another Brockmeier. I heartily recommend both The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia.

~Bill Capossere

What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? From best-selling and award-winning author Kevin Brockmeier: a new novel of stunning artistry and imagination about the wounds we bear and the light that radiates from us all. At 8:17 on a Friday night, the Illumination commences. Every wound begins to shine, every bruise to glow and shimmer. And in the aftermath of a fatal car accident, a private journal of love notes, written by a husband to his wife, passes into the keeping of a hospital patient and from there through the hands of five other suffering people, touching each of them uniquely. I love the soft blue veins on your wrist. I love your lopsided smile. I love watching TV and shelling sunflower seeds with you. The six recipients — a data analyst, a photojournalist, a schoolchild, a missionary, a writer, and a street vendor — inhabit an acutely observed, beautifully familiar yet particularly strange universe, as only Kevin Brockmeier could imagine it: a world in which human pain is expressed as illumination, so that one’s wounds glitter, fluoresce, and blaze with light. As we follow the journey of the book from stranger to stranger, we come to understand how intricately and brilliantly they are connected, in all their human injury and experience.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.