I subscribed to Tin House this year (I try to rotate my subscriptions through several journals, since there’s no way anyone can read them all) partly because of two of the entries in BASS 2010, and partly because of their “buy a book from a local bookstore” push last year. By the way, the journal smells wonderful. If that makes me sound a little crazy, well… I picked a great time to jump in, since the first story I read in Tin House was “Ryan Shifrin.”
It’s one of those stories that makes you sit for a few hours with a stupid look on your face, just thinking about it. No, not even thinking about it – feeling it, letting it reverberate fully through all the emotional nooks and crannies. Then you think about it. And re-read it. And look up reviews to see if you’re nuts or if someone else thought so, too. And when you finally sit down to write something about it, you can’t, because, well, it’s one of those stories. A story that makes you want to throw away your own scribblings because someone else has written what needs to be written, and written it more beautifully, more interestingly, more readably than you’ll ever manage. And leaves you angry because you haven’t written anything like that, haven’t even tried, never realized it was possible.
It’s actually a chapter from a book, The Illumination, which consists of six chapters about people affected by The Illumination – a mysterious process whereby pain became light, and shone forth from wounds visible and invisible. No more pretending your trick ankle is acting up – it’d glow if it were, get out there and play tennis. No more hiding the bruises from the weekend’s beating, they glow through the makeup, scarves, clothes. No more secret cancers, everything’s out there. This reminds me of Ken Kalfus’ “The Moment They Were Waiting For” from Three Stories (published by Madras Press) where everyone becomes aware of the date of his death. I felt there was a missed opportunity there to look at how that would affect society. In some ways, Brockmeier takes on this task, using various characters to do so. Of course, he had a lot more space to play with the overall idea.
Each chapter concerns one person who sees the Illumination from a particular point of view. “Ryan Shifrin,” the chapter in Tin House is about one man who has never had much pain himself, outside of a rash and an abscessed tooth, but he seems to be a magnet for catastrophe. Death, natural disaster, violence follow him around but always spare him. His sister dies; she was “a Christian by constitution; whereas Ryan was merely a Christian by inertia” except for an occasional moment of wonder. At the heartless, cruelly phrased suggestion of his pastor, he takes up missionary work after his sister’s death (which occurred before the Illumination began) and watches victims of fire bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, building collapses, tornados strewn about with wounds glowing: “He felt like a man from some ancient tribal legend who had angered the gods and been doomed to walk the constellations.” He does a lot of thinking about pain, beauty, and God. “If the trials of Job could be a sign of God’s favor, then couldn’t Ryan’s good fortune be a sign of God’s hostility?” And why does God make the wounds glow, is that because God enjoys the light show? “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?” The last four or five pages are full of these thoughts, from one idea of God to another, as Ryan’s life moves quicker and quicker until he is in his eighties and the subject of an honorary church service, almost a memorial for the living, at which he comes up with a final few lines I won’t quote here – you have to read it in context – that had me sobbing helplessly on the couch.
His religious questioning goes deep with me, due to what I sometimes refer to my “misspent youth as a fundamentalist.” As a tween and teen, I was into church. I was really into choir, music, singing, but it was all in church so I was into church. I got over it, but it’s like an accent, it’s something you never quite get rid of entirely, and when I run into a text like this, it feels like something I should’ve written. Or at least tried.
Shelfari at Amazon does an interesting interview with Brockmeier that includes his influences for the book.