Where it hurts

In Kevin Brockmeier’s masterful newest, emotional and physical pain become visible as light, highlighting the tie that binds us all

By Caroline Leavitt
February 6, 2011

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Imagine if our physical pain and our wounds revealed themselves as light glowing from our bodies. Would we feel more connected to others in our shared pain? Would it give our lives more meaning? Those are the provocative questions Kevin Brockmeier probes in his spectacular new novel, “The Illumination.’’

Brockmeier has built his reputation on stories that creep outside of the realm of our own experiences into unfamiliar vistas, tales written in such a visceral way that you never doubt their veracity. From the world of the deceased in “A Brief History of the Dead’’ to the imaginings of a grief-stricken father in “The Truth About Celia,’’ Brockmeier’s books plumb our deepest fears with a kind of wonder.

“The Illumination’’ again relies on Brockmeier’s trademark merging of the strange with the familiar, crafting a novel that feels as if it is unpeeling a layer of life as we know it, to show us the astonishment of life as it is really being lived. In this unsettling new world, human pain throws off gorgeous blazes of light. Any upset, from a hangnail to cancer, is radiantly visible. But why? And what does it all mean?

“The Illumination’’ links the stories of six damaged souls: a data analyst, a photojournalist, a schoolchild, a missionary, a writer, and a street vendor, all struggling with emotional or physical pain. What connects each narrative together with the next is an achingly beautiful, very private journal of love notes written by photojournalist Jason to his wife. When his wife dies in a car accident, the journal is passed from one character to another. The missives are heartbreakingly simple and touching in their catalog of the smallest moments that bind us to another. All begin with a phrase that serves as a refrain throughout the novel: “I love,” as in “I love the poems you wrote in junior high school. I love how you fumble for words when you’re angry. I love holding you tight when you ask me to.’’ A treasury of emotional connection, the journal haunts, inspires, and affects each character in ways that the other characters cannot.

Glimmering with light, each person searches for solace. Numbed by his wife’s death, Jason struggles to feel alive again and becomes involved with a girl from a bus shelter who draws him into her world of self-mutilation. Divorced, love-weary data processor Carol yearns for a relationship with a doctor, but her obsession with the journal sours a budding bond. Chuck, a battered, mute boy with family problems, can’t relate to people at all, but objects hold his attention. When he steals the journal, it’s because he feels the book has feelings and is hurt and betrayed, just like him.

As the novel progresses, the characters become more unsettling, and the issues they deal with more disquieting. Appeals to God offer no soothing answers, and even death is not a respite. Healthy and nonilluminated, Ryan, whose sister dies of cancer, witnesses the misery around him, even as he peddles religious pamphlets door to door. Ryan begins to feel singled out, as all around him, people wonder whether God is illuminating them, trying to get a message across. He ruminates on Job, whose misfortunes were a mark of God’s love. Is his own good fortune a sign of God’s ire against him? In one of the book’s eeriest and most disturbing sections, Nina, a writer with ulcerated lips, calls to her beloved dead fiancé to come back to her, and receives a shocking response. Morse, a homeless man, can read the minds of people who don’t want anything to do with him. He doesn’t love anyone, but his gift allows him understanding. Still, as he says, “[W]ho in this world would choose understanding over love?’’

Brockmeier treats his characters’ struggles with grace and compassion and gets us to care deeply about them. They work to carve out meaning, to scratch at the hope or the possibility of communing with another human being. Underscoring their conflicts is the haunting, harrowing, and deeply hypnotic pull of Brockmeier’s lush language, where even the direst pain becomes poetic. Pain is like “clusters of stars” or “torchlit rooms.” Neural diseases “fluttered in the air like leaves falling through a shaft of light.” Misery becomes downright gorgeous.

So, what does it all mean? Why is there illumination and what are people to do about it? There’s no explanation for why it began, or when or if it will finish. It simply is, the incandescence seemingly fading only after death. Characters don’t resolve their difficult lives, but instead are left in a limbo of problems. Only in the very last, knockout pages, does Brockmeier offer a glint of hope, in the form of a scientist’s musings. People might believe their lives were like “falling silver coins, flashing for merely an instant before they returned to the darkness,” but what, the scientist asks, if light were immortal?

This idea that pain is our most beautiful possession, that an inability to forge true intimacy might be our tragic flaw, might seem like a difficult, depressing idea, but in Brockmeier’s universe, it becomes the most human — and the most bold, brave and humane —thing about us.

Caroline Leavitt’s new novel is “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at

By Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon, 277 pp., $24.95