The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
In an interview with Mary McMyne called “Turning Inward,” Kevin Brockmeier mentions his fascination with what he calls the “ground rules” that govern his works of fiction. He observes, “I usually don't get the chance to talk about those rules, and I always presume that they're more fascinating to me than they would be to anybody else, but the truth is that they are fascinating to me[.]”
Fascinating and, I would add, of vital importance to his fictional projects. The novel that preceded this latest, The Brief History of the Dead (his second), is governed by rules as well, rules of fiction as well as fictional rules: in that book, people who die go to a city where they remain until the last person on earth who knew them also dies; then they disappear from that city. Where do they go after that? None of the dead still “living” on in that city know.
The question in this novel, where do you go after your “second” death, didn’t seem to me to be satisfactorily resolved. The book held me in its thrall until we arrived at the place (and/or narrative moment) where the last human went after she died (she survived a virus that killed off all human life). She finds herself in a snowy place that made me think of the Arctic. She set off walking. After a long time walking, some balls appeared and started rolling around at her feet. I’m deliberately not looking back at the book to check whether I have the details of the ending exactly right because the book is itself about memory. You exist after you die in the minds of the people who knew you. When those people die, then you’re really dead. I got that, but still (and maybe this was Brockmeier’s intention) I got lost in the snowy place. If it was an allegory of being forgotten, it was too abstract for me to enjoy it in the way I’d enjoyed the rest of the book. Life-after-death I got, but I didn’t feel that the book gave me enough of a fictional there for me to maintain my grasp on the central idea that we die a second death after living our, um, post-life life. To me, it felt as though there was no there there (and again, I’m sure that was part of the point). I as a reader couldn’t take that next step of imagining my post-death death, because, I assume, I haven’t yet taken the final step of dying here in this world. I would have to die here in order to imagine the after-after-life that follows the first after-life.
All this is to say that the rules, for me, broke down. That didn’t prevent me from admiring and retrospectively enjoying the city of the dead, but it did leave me dissatisfied in terms of narrative arc and, well, closure. I just had no idea what the hell happened. Again, that might have been the point, but I think Brockmeier (or this reader) ran into a wall. Narrative momentum came to a dead halt (ha ha) when it came up against that-which-cannot-be-represented.
But in his latest book, The Illumination, the rules seem to be governing the new set of problems with exquisite precision and emotional perfect pitch. The novel’s central event is an odd phenomenon that has changed the way humans experience suffering: all pain has suddenly become, in a word, illuminated. Light-giving. The light given off by people’s wounds and diseases glows through their clothes; everyone can see it, both the sufferers and the well (who are, the book reminded me, only the temporarily-well). The novel is composed of six sections, each of which focuses on a different character. In this regard, it feels similar to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, a bit like a set of interlocking short stories. But unlike the latter book, The Illumination feels much richer in terms of characterization, especially with regard to the texture of its people’s interior lives. Indeed, the characters illuminate this novel as brightly as their pain lights up their days; this book is inhabited by richly-drawn, deeply-felt people who stayed with me long after I’d finished the book.
A second rule or device around which the novel is structured is a handwritten book. This book is a compilation of the daily testaments of love written by a man to his wife. He posted the love notes on their refrigerator and the woman transcribed each one of them into the waiting pages of her book. However, after the woman is injured in a car accident, she gives the book to the woman sharing her hospital room. She tells this woman that she can’t bear to look at the book now that her husband has died. This book resurfaces in each section of the novel, and lives out its own life (and, perhaps, after-lives) as it changes hands and affects the people who briefly possess it throughout the arc of The Illumination.
I will confess that, when I first started the novel, I wasn’t certain it would work. I was afraid that the rules, the complex problems Brockmeier set for himself in this project, would make the unfolding of the narrative feel forced, that it would seem over-contrived in the way that The Brief History of the Dead felt at the end. But this wasn’t the case at all. In spite of confining six different protagonists (as well as their lovers, friends, and acquaintances) to sections of about 30-40 pages apiece, Brockmeier makes this anthology of lives work as a whole. In part, this is because of the phenomenon of illumination. It is at once beautiful and painful to witness this spectacle of suffering, just as it is beautiful and painful to watch the characters learn to live with light-giving pain. This piece of fantasy is imaginatively exhilarating; it invigorates the novel’s premise and the mundane sorrows of being an animal in pain in the way that all great literature employing the fantastic does: by briefly freeing us from the tyranny of the everyday, and allowing something scientifically implausible to become stunningly true. (Think Gogol, Kafka, Calvino, Borges, Saramago, John Berger, Hilary Mantel.)
The homely and touching book of love-notes also helps to make connections between the characters, but the real virtuoso element of this novel, with regard to characterization, is Brockmeier’s deeply felt understanding of and empathy for suffering. Humans are full of sorrow. Brockmeier understands this. Humans are so full of sorrow that they can barely stand to look at other people’s sorrow. Brockmeier understands this as well, but he doesn’t avert his gaze. Moreover, he represents this suffering in an imaginatively fresh way that allows the reader to be able to bear watching other people suffer. This is no mean feat.
Not all of the characters are equally well realized, but this is no surprise. Some of them have lived fuller lives than others. All of them are guilty of averting their own gazes from others’ suffering, or, if not of averting their gazes, then they are guilty of distancing themselves in an effort to protect themselves from the terrible weight produced by the accumulation of witnessed sorrow. Brockmeier encourages us to believe that we are stronger than we think; that we can bear to empathize more than we have thus far. This too is no mean feat.
But what also makes the book marvelous is the aliveness of the writing. (And no, I don’t mean “liveliness.”) The imagery and metaphors are fresh and original; they slip into the reader’s sense-memory like a sea wind that has found its way far inland, carrying a trace of salt and the mystery of the sea. For example: a woman coughing up blood says to her brother: “’Who brought that garden inside?’ and in a sunburst of intuition he realized that she saw the seven stained tissues on her bedside table as roses, the same lustrous red as the Apothecaries their mother used to cultivate when they were kids.”
Quite simply: Brockmeier has written a beautiful book, a book that is elegant and true. On every level of the text, from the barely-visible set of rules that it obeys without flinching or hitch, to the rich lives of its characters, to the lyrical beauty of its prose. I have to say that I’m pretty excited about this guy, Kevin Brockmeier. I’m pretty excited and very thankful. He is making the job of living a bit easier; he is doing the work of writing in a way that is engaged, and earnest, and inspiring. It makes me go all English major, to be honest. And so I close: We, we lucky few, we readers: in the course of our lives, our blood may be shed (metaphorically or literally), but we have Kevin Brockmeier to illuminate the loss for us.
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier