Kevin Brockmeier: The Illumination (Pantheon, 2011)

The same day I read “Ryan Shifrin,” a chapter of this book excerpted in Tin House Winter 2011, I ran out to my fiercely independent local bookstore and bought this novel. I loved the story that much: based on what could have been a gimmick, instead it was a powerful image. Unfortunately, I piled other books on top of it, creating a stack rather than a queue, and thus it went unread for a year (but still, there was something about knowing it was there, waiting for me, that was essential).

Then this March, Zin and I read Brockmeier’s “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” as published by Madras Press as one of their teeny-tiny books. It was a Zin story, so I didn’t do the comments, but I was similarly blown away by it: again, a story that should’ve been all gimmickry had me sobbing on the couch. How did he do that?

So I pulled The Illumination from the bottom of the pile and made it my next priority. It’s kind of nice to fall in love with a book for a second time. And once again, other things intervened, but it was a matter of a few weeks this time rather than a year.

The term “The Illumination” refers to the phenomenon of pain becoming visible light, and each of the six chapters lets us experience this effect through a different character.

Carol Ann Page

We learn of the Illumination along with Carol Ann, who cuts her thumb while sawing open the strapping-taped box her son-of-a-bitch ex-husband has used as the shipping crate for her alimony check. The Illumination starts as she is in surgery; she thinks she’s hallucinating, with the doctors are all saying things like “This is really freaking me out” but she’s drugged and doesn’t find out what’s happened until she fully wakes up later. Not that there’s much to find out; no one really knows what’s going on. It’s the artistic choice, to avoid a realistic look at the craziness something like this would cause – there’s a brief collage of scenes on TV news, but no anchors interviewing “experts” or pseudo-scientific explanations – and focus instead on how the characters experience and interpret the effects of The Illumination through their own lenses. It’s an amazingly restrained approach, and it leaves room for the reader to have his or her own thoughts; I appreciate that.

The Journal, which becomes the second trope of the novel, is also introduced in this first chapter. Carol Ann’s hospital roommate has been in a car accident; her last view of her husband was of him hanging “upside down in his seat belt” and the staff won’t tell her anything about him, so she assumes he’s dead. She shows Carol Ann her book:

“Every morning he left a note for me on the refrigerator with a different reason he loved me. He never missed a day. I write them down in my book. Would you like to see?”
She indicated the journal lying on the cabinet between their beds. Carol Ann reached for it and let it fall open to a random page. I love those three perfect moles on your shoulder – like a line of buttons. I love the sound of your voice over the phone when you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re doing a crossword puzzle from me. I love your lopsided smile…. I love your fear of heights and bridges. I love the way you can be singing a song, and all of a sudden it will turn into a different song, and you’ll keep on singing and won’t even realize it.
Carol Ann shut the journal, letting the silk bookmark trail over her wrist. “That’s beautiful.”
The woman in the other bed nodded, and it might have been intuition, or commiseration, or just the last timed dosage of the blue pills Carol Ann had taken, but she could tell what she meant to say was, Yes, it was beautiful. It was. It was.
“You keep it,” the woman told her.
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do. I couldn’t bear to read it again.”
“You don’t want to give something like this away. It’s too intimate.”
The silence that followed had a strange bend to it. It drew itself out while an old man pushed a walker with tennis balls on its feet to the nurses’ station at the far end of the hallway, then pivoted around with a series of metallic clacks. Eventually the woman let her breath run out, turned her face away, and said to Carol Ann, “You don’t understand at all.”

The woman dies later that day, and Carol Ann, thinking the husband is dead as well, claims the book when an orderly starts to clear it away as part of her roommate’s possessions: “…in that instant she had become a thief to him.” Over the course of her recovery she returns to her memory of the woman whose dying she witnessed, and to the book. She imagines a voice saying the words to her, inserting her name. She only learns the couple’s names, Patricia and Jason Williford, well into her reading. And after she receives another alimony check (this time inserted into one of several hundred plastic drinking straws; she imagines the kind of notes her ex-husband would’ve written to her, had he done such a thing: “I love the way your face falls whenever you see my handwriting on an envelope. I love how easy it is to aggravate you. I love waking up next to someone else in the morning..” I have to say, this diabolical alimony delivery pattern is hilarious, and I wonder if he did the same kind of listing out the crazy techniques the way Seth Fried listed Frost Mountain massacre methods. I wonder if it will catch on. I can imagine ex-husbands all over the world, dreaming up new ways to send alimony. Silly me, I didn’t think alimony existed any more, except among the pre-nup’d rich.

Carol has a rocky recovery, but eventually her doctor releases her from treatment and asks her out. On their first date, she discovers that Jason, the note-writing husband, is indeed still alive, and has asked repeatedly about the book. It’s a horrifying first-date scene, with the doctor scolding her, accusing her, and Carol Ann trying to convince him that Patricia asked her to take the book. It’s an ingenious way of destroying all possibility of a relationship, and of again showing just with what the road to hell is paved. Carol returns The Journal (the caps are mine, by the way; it’s just referred to as “the book”) to Jason, and Chapter Two now follows him; we leave Carol Ann as alone and unloved as when we met her. For a nice person, she really has a way of accidentally coming across horribly to others.

Jason Williford

Jason is still recuperating from his injuries and his bereavement. He’s a photojournalist, and while he’s muted by pain and grief, he’s still interested in the light he sees emanating from wounds all around him. He sees a group of kids who’ve taken cutting to a fine art, and takes a picture of a teenage girl burning herself. His editor tracks down the name of the girl – Melissa – and publishes it. She shows up at Jason’s house after her parents read her name in the paper and kick her out.

And there’s where my credulity is stretched. I have no trouble accepting The Illumination – it’s the premise of the book – but I have trouble accepting the parents kick her out for that – she’s a good student and has been accepted at college – and that Jason just lets her move in, doesn’t call her parents, or whatever Child Services authorities exist, but just lets her move into his guest room and invite her friends over at will. Odd, what my mind will and won’t allow.

Jason has been thinking a lot about how some pain cancels out other pain, how his grief is subsumed by some varieties of pain he can still generate by overstressing his remaining injuries, so they have this in common. He tells her about the Journal, and one day comes home to find her and her friends reading it. He throws them all out, offended they would read something so important to him. Melissa comes back that night:

It was at that moment, without so much as a word, that they came to their understanding: he would allow her to live with him until she left for college, and in exchange she would teach him how to manipulate his body, inflicting those small, perfect impairments that rid him of his entire history.

So Jason becomes a cutter. It’s an interesting notion, to explore the psychology of cutting via this story. He becomes quite a connoisseur of pain.

At some point his house is ransacked, and he doesn’t realize it but the Journal has been stolen. It’s clear to me it’s been stolen by an odd little boy in the neighborhood who’s been staring into his house sometimes; the boy serves no other function in the story other than to be there, so this must be why he’s there.

Chuck Carter

He’s in fifth grade, and has some kind of mental difficulty. He’s seeing a psychiatrist, though it’s never clear whether he has a diagnosable organic condition (Asperger’s, borderline retardation, mental illness) or is another of the legion of children being emotionally stunted by bullies and parents who are abusive and neglectful in ways that don’t quite make it onto the radar of social service agencies but that turn their children into cripples.

The use of Chuck as narrator brings to mind an article I read recently on “the impaired narrator,” which I can’t find – it used as an example The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which I loved; I can see glimmers of that autistic boy in Chuck. I think we see Chuck as he sees the world: it doesn’t quite add up, and it all seems confusing and unbearably cruel. He thinks of his dad as a “pretend dad” because a real dad would never do such things as calling him a retard and roughhandling him; but Dad is indeed his birth father, not a stepfather, though that isn’t clear for some time. His mother is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to protect her child. We learn after a while they “had” to get married, and pretend-dad never stops blaming Chuck. After the illumination, Chuck sees objects glow with pain just like people: It’s heartbreaking how he objectifies himself, identifying with objects (whether his condition is psychosis or imagination, I’m not sure, and I don’t think it matters), becoming a sort of parent to The Journal:

Everything was helpless and needed to be saved from harm….Chucks duty, he believed, was to watch over it all. He was big, strong, noble- the Superman of lifeless objects. Objects did not understand how dangerous the world could be. They were simple, childlike, and they could not protect themselves. He hated to see them hurt, hated it beyond words. And that was why he had to steal the book.

He treasures it, then takes it to school a few times. His main school tormentor, Todd, tears pages out on a day when a substitute teacher is in charge. Chuck is devastated at how the book glows brighter in pain. He pushes Todd off a play tower, breaking his arm and earning him a suspension. Mostly he’s devastated because he hasn’t taken care of the book:

The strangeness of people went on and on. Objects, on the other hand, were mostly simple and good. Chuck was always kind to them – it was a rule. They needed his help to make it in the world. They had no one else to look out for them. That was why he was so upset about the book. He had tried fixing it and hand let it down. It gave off more light now than it had before. Why, then, had he taken it at all, he wondered? He was no more than a thief and a kidnapper. The book would be better ff with anyone but him. He might as well give it away to a stranger.

This raises another logic point: why doesn’t he put it back where he got it? He never seemed to feel Jason was hurting the book in any way. But of course that isn’t the point, which is: why aren’t his parents taking half the responsibility for him that he takes for The Journal?

During his suspension, he’s home alone – “he imagined he was an orphan without the sad parts” – and a proselytizer comes to his door. In this way he passes The Journal on. The last scene we share with Chuck is again heartbreaking, as he imagines his parents fighting, killing each other (“Chuck would be an orphan with the sad parts included”) but no, they’re still there in the morning, and he’s trapped all over again.

Ryan Shifrin

In my comments on this chapter a year ago, I liked that Brockmeier had more space to play with the idea of how visible pain would change society. In this chapter, a man who’s never had pain goes looking for the pain of others. He is, of course, the missionary to whom little Chuck gives The Journal, but it isn’t with him long; The Journal plays less of a role in his life than in the other character’s. He’s sent all over the world to fix the ills of mankind, so he wonders, alone in his Church in his old age, where it might have gone, where he might have left it along the way, and why he never knew the kind of love in The Journal, himself.

Nina Poggioni

Maybe my favorite chapter, because it’s about a writer of slightly fantastical books (I wonder how much of this is drawn from Brockmeier’s experience), and includes a story-within-the-story. The single mother of fourteen-year-old Wallace, Nina’s been dealing with chronic mouth ulcers for five years now. Every time one crop settles down, another starts. Eating, talking, kissing are all disrupted: she’s given up on romance. Readings are torturous for her, not only for the pain, but knowing everyone can see it. She comes across the Book in a hotel room, no doubt one Ryan Shifrin was in earlier, and writes a small story, “A Fable for the Living,” which clearly incorporates it: in a land where the dead go underground, people communicate by throwing love notes into fissures that open up from time to time, and one day a woman throws in a note to her dead husband: “Are you there?” A fissure opens up in her front yard, and a piece of paper floats out: “Yes.”

Though she continues writing and giving readings, her life is consumed by her mouth ulcers. And it’s especially hard because everyone can see them; there’s no faking it any more. There’s an especially cruel twist to this particular ailment, driving her to avoid company and be by herself:

She didn’t have to combat the impression that she was undergoing some kind of joke ailment, like a hangnail or an ingrown hair, the kind of thing that could be remedied with tweezers or a topical cream. A canker sore, yes. I had one of those myself few years back, people liked to say. Grin and bear it, that’s my motto, and they would clap her shoulder and wait for her to chuckle along with them at the human body and all its darling haplessness.

This stopped me in my tracks. I’m forever trying to explain the difference between small-d and Capital-D Depression to people who can’t understand why I don’t just soldier on; after all, they get depressed now and then, and they’ve never had to go to a hospital, for god’s sake. It’s easy to minimize someone else’s pain. And I think it most clearly indicates the central theme of the book: we notice the pain of others, but still, we focus on our own. Even when people are glowing before us, we worry how they perceive our glowing. We are, at the heart of it, self-centered creatures. Now, instead of seeing someone else’s pain, we felt it, that might be different, do you think?

She encounters a young man, a sort of groupie who follows her across several states to attend her readings, and after resisting his invitations she finally shares a tentative bond with him. The Journal has faded a bit from the scene, maybe because she has recreated it in her own image with her “Fable of Living.” In any case, it ends up in her extensive library at home at some point in the story.

Morse Putnam Strawbridge

Morse is a homeless guy who has trouble talking. Words just get garbled on the way out, unless he practices, so as much as possible, he sticks to memorized scripts. He sells books on the street, calling out the phrase “One for two, or cash money.” When the Illumination starts, he’s beaten by a bunch of gangsters (he thinks the light is his soul leaking out of his body), but it’s a case of mistaken identity. One of them feels remorse and takes him to the hospital, then visits him from time to time to bring him books stuffed with a few bills.

Morse comes across the Book when Wallace, the fourteen-year-old son of Nina, trades it to him for a collector’s edition of a game-themed graphic novel. The equivalencies here, in what we value, are hard to miss:

Morse has this ability to know who people are, what they’re thinking and feeling, just by seeing them. At first, this seemed like wanton point-of-view switching, but it’s actually part of the story, which is quite a clever way to blend form and content. There is a brief second-person excursion regarding Morse, so it’s a bit of a wild ride of a chapter as we follow him through his rounds and see into lives – including Nina’s – he passes by but never really touches.

He loses the book; it’s snatched from his hands as he’s reading it, something he enjoys from time to time, and thrown into the gutter where it’s splashed and torn. It’s pretty tattered by that point. There’s no final destruction scene; it could be salvaged, and pass on to someone else. The book ends here, but this is also interesting, since in Ryan’s story, we saw many more years into the future, though without The Journal.


In many ways, I wish the book had ended with the Nina Poggioni chapter, since that was my favorite, but there must be a reason Brockmeier structured it otherwise; I’m positive it wasn’t by accident.

The magic of this book, I think, is in how it’s written, how the timelines are structured and designed to overlap and extend in different directions. It’s beautiful reading, of course; pick a page, any page, and you’ll find something wonderful.

So we travel, via The Journal, with a lonely woman with short-term pain, a grieving husband who learns to love physical pain as an escape from the emotional variety, a child who grows compassion from his pain, a missionary who observes and attempts to relieve pain but doesn’t experience much, a writer who is ashamed of and consumed by her pain, and a street guy who accepts pain as the cost of living. There’s a sameness to it in spite of the variety of main characters: they’re all isolated in one way or another, and their experience of love, a voyeuristic and second-hand look, is through The Journal. Though the book is about the illumination of pain, it’s actually about that thing inseparable from pain: love.

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