Come to Light
One aspect of myself I’m not proud of is how squeamish I am about medical issues. At brunch with girlfriends a while back, I excused myself when one went into detail about her upcoming stomach-stapling surgery. I sat in the bathroom, feeling faint, until I was sure the conversation had moved on to another topic. So it was with some teeth-gritting that I tackled sections of Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel, The Illumination, which occasionally delves into graphic descriptions of oozing mouth ulcers, self-inflicted cigarette burns, and infected fingers requiring amputation. It is a testament to Brockmeier’s strengths as a writer and the vision of his novel that these descriptions are not only compulsively readable, even by the faint-of-stomach, but that illness is transformed into not a metaphor for the human condition but a proposal for what we might be, given the kind of compassion and sympathy we are already capable of as people.
Brockmeier’s book takes place in a world very much like our own, except that one evening, 8:17 p.m. on a Friday, to be exact (one must wonder about the Bloomsday-esque significance of this date and time), the sicknesses and injuries of everyone on the planet begin to glow, light shining from contusions, sites of chronic illness, even mild sources of pain like too-tight waistbands and sandal straps. Through six sections, each focusing on one character’s experience of the phenomenon and life after, we grow to understand “the Illumination,” as it is dubbed, and how its presence changes the way the characters in the book see each other, and themselves.
But Brockmeier’s characters are more than just windows into their afflictions. Each character study is careful and deep, each section nearly a novel unto itself of the joys and pains, connections forged and lost between people. As the Illumination becomes more commonplace, the oddness of it takes a backseat to the new reality in which no one can disguise their hurt, and masochists and children removing scabs alike enjoy a new dimension to exploring the way their bodies fight and heal infection. The book makes illness and injury a plain fact, not endowing any qualitative judgments onto those who endure it:
There was the free-for-all at the hockey match, one lightning flash after another bursting from the cluster of sticks and uniforms. There was the fraternity party at which the pledges had taken turns punching through sheets of glass, leaving their hands sliced open with glittering, perfectly shaped gashes…. he watched soldiers burning out of their injuries, footballers flickering through their pads and jerseys. He watched children with sacklike bellies basking in a glow of hunger.
As someone with fourteen years of Quaker education under her belt, the light of God shining in everyone is no news to me, though I doubt George Fox ever envisioned something so literal. Nor does Brockmeier underscore a religious reading of the event. The book instead asks what it means to take a formerly private hurt and make it public, and not only public but universal. There are few in these pages who don’t glow in one way or another, if only from the occasional temple-throb of anxiety. The other thread that unites the six sections is a journal, passed on from one character dying in a hospital bed shortly after the Illumination begins, to another, recovering from an accidental knife injury in the next bed over. The journal is a list, kept by the dying patient of notes her husband leaves for her, a single sentence each day of the way he loves her.
I love the photograph of you your parents keep by the front door, that little girl in her glasses and her Holly Hobbie dress. I love the way you kiss. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the “magically delicious” doodles you make when you’re talking on the phone: stars, moons, hearts, and clovers.
The journal makes its way from character to character, allowing readers to peek into it through six different sets of eyes, and the trope might come to seem heavy-handed if Brockmeier didn’t allow it to disappear now and again, fostering a curiosity about its return. And in fact while reading The Illumination I found myself cataloguing the sorts of things I’d want to read written about me: I love the way you know the lyrics to so many Tom Petty songs. I love your hatred for Minimalism. I love your DVD collection: so much Simpsons, so much Wong Kar-Wai. I love how pale you get when someone talks about their time in the hospital.
For though we are universal in our pain, though we must acknowledge the way pain affects us all equally, albeit in different amounts, we still want to be loved for who we are as individuals, we still want to be seen in all our particularity. Brockmeier’s deeply felt novel has created six individuals through which we can imagine a higher state of being as people, in which we die not alone but in a brilliant flash of light, impossible to turn away from or forget.