Pain is one of the few constants in life, and in author Kevin Brockmeier’s latest novel, injuries and wounds do much more than bleed. Humanity is revealed in a narrative revolving around a diary kept by a woman who dies in the opening pages, a diary comprised of love notes from her husband which will transfer through the hands of six different characters of varying ages and positions in life.
The woman, who dies from injuries suffered in a car crash, bequeaths the diary to her hospital roommate. At the same time, an extraordinary event begins all over the world: pain and injuries suddenly become incandescent. Every ache or wound or bodily damage on persons everywhere in the world begins to glow with a brilliant luminescence. Serious injuries like stab wounds or gunshots, chronic pain like arthritis, every shaving nick, paper cut or heart attack shines like a lighthouse beacon. The woman’s roommate at the hospital, the first person to receive the diary, becomes fascinated with both the love notes and the new phenomenon. Society will coin the term “the Illumination” to describe the occurrence, but it brings more to light than just pain.
Brockmeier never reveals the source of the novel’s title phenomenon. Instead as the story goes on, he chooses to focus on the six different characters who will at one time or another possess the diary. The novel tells how each is affected by both the diary and the event happening to humanity. It is a testament to Brockmeier’s writing that he can create such varied personalities.
The novel is knee-deep in symbolism and social commentary. There is much more to be read between-the-lines then there is in the story itself. The dust jacket is startlingly pure white, with only the lettering in black, as bright as the phenomenon itself and no doubt purposely designed with marketing the plot in mind. The “Illumination” shows how all of humanity is equal – as does the diary. Most everyone desires love; everyone feels pain, and everyone dies. Brockmeier’s message seems to be that how people cope with these constants of life helps define them as people, that the individual differences of how one does so define humanity.
What disappoints as the story goes on is that both the imaginative elements of the strange occurrence and the diary of love notes seem to become less important then the lives of the six characters. The plot, which tries to explore how love and life can transcend grief and pain, takes a back seat to the character narratives. A good novel must maintain a balance of both, and that balance drifts away as the story progresses. Brockmeier keeps the story interesting, but it becomes difficult to keep track of the diary or how it even matters anymore, except to introduce the next character.
Each segment starts with the next person to receive the diary. The sections then briefly outline the character’s reaction to “the Illumination” and recounts how the diary came to be in their possession. Not only does this diminish the story, but just as the reader is fully becoming immersed in a character, the diary changes hands yet again, forcing the reader to move on, not always knowing what happened to the character they were just reading about. This engenders a feeling of dissatisfaction.
What will satisfy Kevin Brockmeier’s fans is his continued ingenuity in coming up with creative story ideas. The concept of pain and its importance to the living has been explored many times by different authors (Fight Club is the first thing that jumps to mind), but Brockmeier explores it with greater literary depth. Readers will be impressed by his creativity, something he has excelled at previously, especially in excellent stories like his earlier novel, A Brief History of the Dead.
There are gems of creativity in The Illumination. For instance, with wounds now glowing inexplicably, teenagers and other counter-culture personality types begin self mutilation and carve glowing tattoos in themselves. The societal concept of manners is examined as people can no longer hide the throbbing of a hangover-induced headache or lung cancer from years of smoking. These larger issues of the strange occurrence are only mentioned briefly to provide background and are not explored with any imaginative intent.
Brockmeier is an admirable fiction writer, and The Illumination builds on an interesting concept. The story may suffer a little for character narratives that are only connected to the plot by the barest threads of the diary, but it doesn’t suffer enough to lose all relevance. It’s an entertaining fiction worth reading for the shards of truth and the talented writing it 7contains, even if it does fall somewhat shy of its full potential.