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FIELD NOTES: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

oxford american fiction

Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.

The Wide World of Southern Literature:

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon, 2011)

Suffering people fantasize that their pain will not be an alienating force, but will instead be recognized as beautiful and somehow significant. In Kevin Brockmeier’s latest novel, The Illumination, this scenario is realized one Friday evening when, suddenly, every wound in the world begins to emit light. Carol Ann Page, a researcher, nearly severs the tip of her thumb while opening a package from her ex-husband. Half an hour later, she wakes up from surgery to find her pain is visible, “a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail.”

Carol Ann imagines it is only a fleeting hallucination, but she soon discovers that the “Illumination” is widespread. On the TV near her hospital bed, she observes,

a child soldier with his arm in a sling and his shoulder ablaze with light…. A pair of boxers opening up radiant cuts on each other’s faces…. A woman in a blue burka, long pencils of light shining through the net of her veil. A team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing iridescent circles in the air.

In the morning, Carol Ann is joined by a woman who burns so brightly her glow is visible beneath layers of hospital blankets. Her name is Patricia Williford, and she gives Carol Ann a book as she is dying—a handwritten journal in which she has recorded the one-line love notes her husband left for her every morning of their marriage.

I love the sound of your voice over the phone when you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re doing a crossword puzzle from me.... I love the way you can be singing a song, and all of a sudden it will turn into a different song, and you’ll keep singing and won’t even realize it.

The roommate dies moments later; a halo of pain outlasts her final breath.

Carol Ann takes the journal home with her and each day reads a page from it.

Sometimes she liked to imagine that the journal had a voice and that it was speaking directly to her—a gentle baritone that developed a bit of gravel when it used her name.
"I love to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to you sleeping" (Carol Ann, she added): "the funny noises you make when you dream, the tiny pop of your lips separating."

It is haunting, comforting, tender, and heartbreaking, but it is not Carol Ann’s for long. When the doctor who stitched her hand together reenters her life for a date and discovers the book, he informs her that Jason Williford, the man who wrote the love letters, is still alive. (He was, in fact, brought back to life by medics.) In a condescending monologue that feels like a slap in the face, Carol Ann’s date informs her that she has “taken the most terrible month of this man’s life and made it that much worse.” Everyday, her dead roommate’s husband has called the hospital trying to locate the missing journal.  

Soon enough, Williford is at her door. It is late. There is a cool spring breeze. Carol Ann, the doctor, and the widower stand together outside, glowing in the darkness.

"Tetrarch 1:37pm, 1st August, 2007." Image courtesy Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and the artist. Copyright Christopher Bucklow.

Williford is injured, guilt-ridden, and mourning. In an effort to distract himself from his own pain, he goes back to work as a photojournalist, attempting to catch the perfect photograph to illustrate a news story on the Illumination. He gets it when a beautiful teenager allows him to photograph her burning her skin with a cigarette. When her name runs in the paper without her consent, her parents kick her out and she’s labeled a bad influence. With nowhere else to turn, she ends up on Williford’s doorstep, and he lets her stay in exchange for lessons in masochism. The book is neglected, its pain more unbearable to the widower than wrist-cutting or self-inflicted burns.

Across the street, a clumsy, bullied schoolboy so sensitive he can see the iridescent pain of mishandled and neglected objects sees the book as Illuminated as his own school-fight bruises and steals it out of love and sympathy before passing it off to a lonely, doubting missionary. From the missionary, it makes its way to an author afflicted by mysterious mouth ulcers; and, finally, to a homeless book trader.

The perfect specificity of the love letters provides a direct contrast to the lives of the characters that possess the journal after Patricia’s death—Carol Ann has no one to talk to, though she can talk. Jason Williford’s world was previously brightened by the love he shared with his wife, but with her gone, he has only the light of his pain. Chuck, the child, gives up speaking—he can’t talk to his father, who, he thinks, must not be his real father, because a real father wouldn’t berate him or smack him around—and won’t summon words for the bullies at school. Ryan, the missionary, is leading his dead sister’s life, speaking her evangelical words—not his own. Nina, the author, must change the way she reads her stories in front of audiences so that her mouth will not radiate in the agony that frequently paralyzes her and renders her mute. Even the book trader, Morse, can’t speak at will—he has a disability that causes him to repeat phrases after hearing them. He can memorize, but he can’t construct sentences on the spot.

The Illumination pairs Brockmeier’s genius for storytelling (previously most evident in his short stories) with a narrative structure so brilliant that the novel is greater than the sum of its parts. Each portrait builds on and defies the ones that preceded it, and the meaning of pain, and the light, and the potential for salvation through love are examined in all their complex possibility. With all the pain in the world visible, universal understanding, unity, and peace all seem temporarily within reach. But, like everything else, the Illumination is not one thing to all people. Everyone whose story we are invited to witness is experiencing the Illumination in a specific way, and Brockmeier treats their pain, their loneliness, and the promise of human connection with great tenderness, generosity, and merciful validation. It is a treasure.

Kevin is interviewed by Granta here and by the OA’s Managing Editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald here

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