Can we all agree before I start that Kevin Brockmeier is a beautiful and inventive writer? His novel The Brief History of the Dead still haunts me even thought it’s been years since I’ve read it. And his short story “The Ceiling” (which you can read online right here, how rad is that?) gives me goosebumps every single time I read it, and I’ve read it a lot. Can we agree to that? Good.
So now imagine my surprise to read his latest book, The Illumination and find myself not just disappointed but kind of bored at times. It’s crushing, I tell you.
Not so much a novel as a series of linked short stories, The Illumination shares the lives of six people who come into contact with a mysterious journal penned by a dead woman. The journal is filled with transcriptions of the daily love notes her husband would leave for her:
I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bed time. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric. I love the scent of your hair just after you take a shower.
At about the same time the journal-writer dies the planet is struck with The Illumination, whereby people’s pain radiates light. Yes, everyone can see everyone else’s pain.
Such a great premise. Just think of the implications of actually seeing someone’s pain. How does that affect you? What do you do to cope?
Sadly, those kinds of implications are never addressed by any of the characters. Instead we get a set of so-so short stories where The Illumination is sort of incidental. There’s lonely Carol Ann who is in the hospital after lopping off the tip of her thumb, and given the journal by the woman who is about to die. Then there’s Jason who recovers his wife’s journal from Carol Ann; and Chuck who steals it from Jason; and Ryan who gets the book from Chuck; and so on and so on.
Each story spends a lot of time talking about the day The Illumination started and what the character remembers about it. This gets repetitive fast. There are also many, many, entirely too many descriptions about the light each kind of pain sheds. The first few times these are dazzling and beautiful, but after reading them a dozen times in each story their beauty (and my patience) wore thin.
The problem here is that so many of the characters live in these odd, unbelievable silos. Carol Ann has to have part of her thumb amputated and goes it entirely alone — she apparently has no friends or family. Jason, who is recovering from the horrific car crash that kills his wife, has a few coworkers — but comes home from the hospital (after his wife has died) to an empty house. There’s no one. I just don’t buy it. This happens with all the stories (an odd, noticeable lack of people in their lives) except for Nina’s, which was my favorite.
Nina is a writer who uses lines from the journal in her fiction. She’s on a reading tour and suffers from chronic painful mouth ulcers. Talking causes her great pain and the people who attend her readings can see light pouring from her mouth. This doesn’t stop a young fan from turning all groupie and following the tour. It’s a great story and really shines because the main character actually interacts with other people and, well, does something.
In the rest of the stories there’s a lot of internal monologue, and frankly it gets boring. It’s a shame too, because the premise here is so interesting and the writing is quite beautiful. But it never quite comes together. The journal and The Illumination seem kind of incidental and don’t have any real role other than “this odd thing that happened.” There’s no lasting impact of these things on the characters, which is probably why the book has no lasting impact on the reader.