‘Deeply unusual, brightly poetic and rudely unsettling’ – The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

If you were to ask anyone who’d read Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination what it was about, they would, quite possibly, refer you to the central magical idea of the novel: how, inexplicably

all around the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and the wounded…’

Throughout the book we see countless examples of how the illumination, as it comes to be called, manifests itself – from ‘boxers opening up radiant cuts on each other’s faces’ to ‘Palestinian suicide bombers who interpreted the footage of their brother’s lives ending in an explosion of golden mist as a sign that their cause was blessed by the Lord’; from a famine victim ‘staring out of the radiance of her hunger’ to passengers who stumble out of a bus wreck ‘like gleaming torches’ – but the book is not about the illumination, the illumination is merely the context against which the stories in the book unfold. If The Illumination could be said to be about any one thing, it is about a book of love notes.

Jason Williford, a photographer, pastes a note to the fridge each morning on which he tells his wife, Patricia, one more reason why he loves her. Patty writes the note up in a sort of diary. The book comes to our attention after the couple are in a terrible car accident. Patty ends up in a bed next to Carol Ann Page, a lonely divorcee who had hurt her thumb on a carving knife while trying to open a parcel – and Carol is gifted the book in the moments immediately preceding a conflagration of light that sees Patty pass from this world.

I love the photograph of you your parents keep by the front door, that little girl in her glasses and her Holly Hobbie dress. I love the way you kiss. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the “magically delicious” doodles you make when you’re talking on the phone: stars, moons, hearts, and clovers. I love to look up and see you sitting beneath the lamp in the living room – reading a book, or staring out the window, or chewing the end of a ballpoint pen. I love how soft your hands are, even though hand lotion is disgusting goop and you’ll never convince me otherwise.’

Patty dies thinking her husband is dead but her husband isn’t dead and by hook and by crook he manages to get the diary back but of course he is devastated, forever changed, by the death of his wife and – the circle of his passage through the world utterly diminished – he befriends a group of young ne-er-do-wells who loiter down by the bus station and they introduce him to the joys of shiny self-harm.  Chuck Carter, a young kid who seems to glimpse illumination from inanimate objects as well:

‘Jars of peanut butter could be hurt just like people. Dirt bikes, toys, shopping carts, cereal boxes: they all could. Chuck knew – and had always known – that it was true.’

Drawn to the diary because it ‘ached with the hard light of something broken’, Chuck tries his best to nurse the book back to happiness, but his various attempts only seem to cause the book more pain – and problems in Chuck’s own life, from a bad relationship with his father to confrontations with a schoolyard bully only seem to make the book unhappier.

And so it goes on, various people, gently touching each other’s lives, the book passing either accidentally or on purpose from one new owner to another, each of whom offer Brockmeier the opportunity to raise questions about what it, the book, the light, all means. Ryan Schifrin, a door to door religious sort, is handed the book by Chuck and finds himself forced to question his limited faith:

‘You would think that taking the pain of every human being and making it so starkly visible – every drunken headache and frayed cuticle, every punctured lung and bowel pocked with cancer – 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 coming of age knowing nothing else, running to their mothers to have a Band-Aid put on their flickers, asking Why is the sky blue? and Why does the sun hurt?, 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.’

By the climax, there is overlap, between the book – which has changed hands time and again by this point, but never implausibly – and the light itself, between the stories of the people and the actual book we hold in our hands:

‘Between each sentence, it seemed, there was a gap, a chasm, a whitening away of meaning. He did not understand how something so sweet, so earnest and candid, could also be so wayward and enigmatic. He kept expecting to return to the book and discover that it had pondered all his questions while he was gone and then fortified itself with the answers.’  

The Illumination is a little like Nicole Krauss’ Great House in that it concerns a number of different characters only loosely related, and it’s a little like Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming in that it tells its stories over a period of many years but it’s also like neither of them (and it’s infinitely better than the Krauss). The Illumination is deeply unusual, brightly poetic and rudely unsettling, the kind of book it would be easy to see people obsessing about, passing from hand to hand, reading over and again, the kind of book that – if you’re new to Kevin Brockmeier, as I am, could see you spiralling back through his other books.

Any Cop?: To date, the single best novel I’ve read in 2011.


Peter Wild


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