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.