"The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination", Brockmeier writes. "No one could disguise his pain anymore. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone’s impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in the glory of leukemia.”
How would a world like this adapt to its newfound incandescence? Some turn voyeurs, rushing to capture the art, the unmistakable beauty in suffering. Hospitals evolve new triage rules; photography gains momentum like never before. For others, like the teenaged ‘cutters’ , self mutilation becomes an expression of angst, the inspiration for a whole new sub culture . “We’re not creating wounds”, a character says after a particularly grisly photo opp. “We’re uncovering the wounds that are already there.” Some see variety in the light around them, and in some, it inspires empathy. But for the most part, people just learn to look away. “You would think “, a character observes, “that taking the pain of very 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, at least ripples of pity…”.
Brockmeier gives us a world ripe with potential, a scenario that surely demands examination. Yet he prefers to breeze by this aspect of his tale, choosing instead to focus on individual stories. So we follow the trajectory of a journal through the lives of six unconnected people as they struggle to cope with their pain. The journal is a compilation of love notes written by a man to his wife. I love watching you sit at your desk, it reads. I love your gray coat with the circles like cloud covered suns. I love how easily you cry when you are happy. I love your many doomed attempts to give up caffeine. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the way chocolate makes your eyes light up.
It is a litany of endearments made all the more poignant by her untimely death, and it touches each of these six lives in different ways. For data analyst Carol Ann, whose life “seemed like one long litany of wounds”, it is the salve that helps her move on from a painful marriage and divorce. For Jason Williford, author of those notes, it is his one connection to the love he has lost, until his pain becomes his diversion and, ultimately, his salvation. Ten year old Chuck Carter, victim of bullying at home and in school, can see the pain in inanimate objects as well, and the journal’s radiant pages spur him to become its protector. For writer Nina Poggione, literally wounded by her words as she endures oral ulcers through successive book readings, the journal inspires a parable that leads her toward love and healing, however fleeting. And for used book peddler Morse Strawbridge, “..fascinated, yet vexed by the book”, the journal is a comforting presence, his sole companion in a momentary respite from his impoverished life. “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.”
In a world lit up by suffering, evangelist Ryan Shifrin is an anomaly – a man untouched by the Illumination, seemingly immune to disease and disaster. Bound to his vocation not by faith but the burden of obligation, his life is spent questioning God’s intent. Is the Illumination a sign of His love , in which case, he himself has been left bereft? Or is it a sign that His love is decorative, a particularly arduous test of faith? The journal resonates with a simple love he can never hope to feel, that he has, in fact, deprived himself of, and that he can only yearn for in “..a Heaven of starting over, a Heaven of trying again” .
‘The Illumination’ traverses terrain familiar to readers of Brockmeier’s earlier work – alienation, silent heartbreak, grief. This is also a book about the fleeting connections we make , or miss, the ephemeral encounters that leave one’s life forever changed. It is one of those books that you will either love or hate unconditionally, the kind that will work its way under your skin and into a stubborn corner of your head and stay there. There are times when Brockmeier’s chronicle of suffering feels like a dark reflection of Jason’s words, an unrelenting chronicle of damage and disfigurement – severed thumbs, mouth ulcers, the aurora of a million ruined hearts, livers and kidneys. His characters are offered little respite and certainly no redemption. The section on Jason Williford is especially hard to read, as we watch him apprentice himself to a teenaged cutter, learning how to release his grief in the incandescence of his pain.
And yet, for all its bleakness, it is hard to remain unmoved by this book’s raw and tragic beauty or Brockmeier’s considerable skills as a storyteller.