What if you broke your arm and a shaft of light came shooting out of your elbow? Or if your boyfriend left you and your chest glowed with brilliant radiance–the pain could be an illumination.
So is the basis of Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination. He takes the most tragic of human condition, both emotional and physical, and gives it beauty that never ceases to reveal new interpretations of pain. A woman cuts her thumb and a sword of light shoots out of the wound; a young boy’s bum has a lit up square-edged mark from a paddle spanking; a girl’s skeleton swells white as disease rushes through her bones. Though written with lyrical and beautiful phrases, there is no uplift in this theme that one would normally ascribe with radiance, not in the figurative sense anyway. It has more to do with tenderness. In one scene, after a young Chuck Carter is beaten by fellow classmates, Mr. Brockmeier describes the episode: “For a few seconds, the light poured out like water. It hurt just a little too much to be beautiful.”
The six characters that are protagonists to each of their stories (a data analyst; a photojournalist; a schoolchild; a missionary; a writer; a street vendor) are all at a loss–not only from what is obvious, but from what is underneath them, emotionally and psychologically–and where there is injury, there is light. It’s a global phenomenon. One wonders if Mr. Brockmeier’s intention is to illicit a kind of empathy for those in pain, especially from members of the ‘fend-for-yourself’ culture. Would the immediacy of being able to witness pain invite more compassion? Perhaps, if you were to cross the street and see someone’s arthritic knees spark like a disco ball, you might be inclined to help him.
It isn’t just The Illumination that threads these six narratives; there is also a journal, a love diary: I love sitting outside on a blanket with you, my bare foot brushing against yours. I love how embarrassing you find your middle name. I love how irritated you get at smiley face icons, or, as I know you love to call them, “emoticons.” I love seeing your body turn into mosaic through the frosted glass of a hotel shower. The diary is comprised of reasons why a husband loves his wife. But they get into a car accident. Carol Anne, one of the protagonists, shares a hospital room with the wife for whom the journal is written. The wife, before she dies, gives the diary to Carol Anne, and from one story to the next, the journal ventures on its own journey, coming across characters that find themselves touched by the emotional radiance it reveals.
I’ve noticed a trend in regard to structure over the last few years, the multiple-narrative structure set around a singular event or object. Nicole Krauss’s Great House is connected by four narratives in which all have a specific wooden desk; Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin ties narratives around a single day; David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten connects one story to another by a mere phone call. It seems that the reason for this is that there’s an interest to expound on the idea that everything is connected–in some shape, some form. The history of a certain object can reveal the stories passed through it, and so we are no longer focusing on a single narrative but on as many as we can handle. Perhaps, it has something to do with how rapidly our attention span is shortening. We seem to reject the vast and linear narrative of a century ago, unless assigned to us in a literature seminar. But, we’re speedier and can do more at once. And just as social networking trends like Twitter and Facebook give us a sense that we are connected, so does the multiple-narrative structure suggest that stories are connected. One doesn’t exist without the other. These authors, as well as Mr. Brockmeier in this novel, are celebrating the complicated, yet unified experience of narrative.
The Illumination is a lyrical, sweeping, and poetically realized work. The wife’s diary is a list, but the novel too is a list of how beautiful pain can be interpreted, and how it affects us: His scalp looked like a firework that had burst open; …a cataract of light pouring out of the hole where her knee had been; …a magnificent wave of light came bloating out of the burn; …nothing was visible but a bright field of lesions; …from inside, where the tendons fanned apart, it began to shine, a hard surge of light that turned his glasses into vacant white discs.