Monday, June 27, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Wacky book. Little "Blindness" by Jose Saramango, little "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, a little sprinkling of sci fi. Not sure I get it, but I read it avidly, wonderingly. What I worried was just going to be a runaway case of "magic realism" turned out to be a beautifully-observed, taut series of highly-detailed character sketches.

About the passage of a couple's "love journal" among several disparate people, at a time when the Earth has experienced a strange occurrence, "The Illumination" as it comes to be called, when all human physical pain is accompanied by a bright light shining from the pain's source.

Certainly the novel is about the meaning of pain, the sources of pain, the solution to pain, the differences between private and public pain, and it extends these philosophical questions by erasing the distinction between private and public pain.

A woman keeps a journal where she writes down daily the love notes her husband unfailingly leaves for her. When the wife dies in the hospital after a car accident where her husband also injured, the journal is taken home by the woman in the next hospital bed, who has cut her hand opening a nasty package from her ex-husband containing her alimony check.

The only real "plot" in the novel is the movement of the journal from one character to the next, its effect on each character.

The husband survives his injures, and traces the journals disappearance. He appears at the woman's doorway and demands the journal back. The man, a photojournalist, begins taking pictures of the strange light shows every human's body now makes, shining at the edge of any pain they feel. He photographs a group of high school "cutters," who slice themselves with knives.

Then a little boy, a neighbor of the man's, who suffers from a strange psychological "silence," steals the book, after peeking through the man's window and seeing that for him, an almost-autistic presence who much prefers things to people, the journal itself glows with all the pain of the man's memory of his wife.

The boy passes the journal on to a man who comes to his door to distribute Christian evangelical material. The man carries the journal around the country, and the world, as his mission continues. The novel veers forty years into the future to the man's death. He does observe over that generous span of time that "The Illumination" has done nothing to save or even improve the world: "Still they [children) grew into their destructiveness," he thinks, "and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world."

Next the journal goes to successful fiction writer, suffering during a speaking tour from an assortment of cancer sores and inner mouth injuries that won't heal. Her son back at home trades for the journal from a street-person bookseller.

She begins communicating with her dead fiancee by leaving notes in cracks in the ground, and eventually tearing pages out of the journal and sticking them in the ground. The fiance replies. In the final chapter, via flashback, the story of how the indigent bookseller got the journal takes place.

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