Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Turn on the bright lights

The concept in Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination is a simple but brilliant one: one day, for no reason, everyone's wounds become illuminated.

Imagine what you would look like. My tendonitis-ridden left knee would be a white ball. My spine would light up. So would my left eye and the rotator cuff tear on the top of my left shoulder. You couldn't hide the secret sources of your pain any longer.

But how quickly would the miraculous become the mundane? I think that is really what Brockmeier is exploring in his new novel: our capacity for wonder, and our equally great capacity for absorbing it.

The Illumination links together the stories of a handful of individuals, held together by the lost (and found, and lost again) journal of a dead woman. Young wife Patricia Williford's husband, Jason, leaves her a note every morning with a different thing that he loves about her, and Patricia has copied the notes into a series of journals. On the day of the illumination, Patricia is killed and Jacob severely wounded in a car accident, and Patricia's journal ends up in the hands of Carol Ann, in the hospital with an injured hand.

Brockmeier traces the journal's journey from Carol Ann back to Jason, who forms an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Patricia's death with a self-destructive but oddly tender teenager, Melissa. The journal is then swiped by Jason's neighbor, Chuck, a gentle, silent ten-year-old whose oddness is a magnet for being mistreated by others. The journal then passes through the hands of a door-to-door preacher to an author in chronic pain to a homeless man, where it rests at the end of the novel.

But although the journal is the thread that links the people of The Illumination together, and snippets of Jason's I love yous fill the pages, the journal isn't really the central theme of the novel. Rather, sources of pain, manifesting as light, are.

What does the illumination really change? Nothing, as Brockmeier puts it: "You would think that taking the pain of every human being and making it 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 now there were children who had come of age knowing nothing else...and 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."

The Illumination is a lovely little book. Brockmeier presents what should be a profound, life-altering phenomenon, then shows, with incisive, scalpel-like writing, precisely all the ways human nature conspires to inure us to the miraculous. How infinitely adaptable we are, suggests Brockmeier. How easily we adjust.

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