The Illumination

by Kevin Brockmeier
ISBN: 9780375425318

I really got into this book. I found the premise fascinating: imagine pain glowing, if light literally shone from injuries and illness. How would the world change? (Triage in the ER would be, in some respects, much easier.)

The ways the world doesn’t change may be even more interesting to imagine. Can we really bear to look at each other’s pain? Would our fascination with our own pain grow, change, or be sated? I found myself wondering, more that once, how I would have looked in this universe at different times, how I too would have glowed, how the light would have poured out from the people around me.

How this came to be — what cosmic switch was flipped to make the light visible — is not explained or explored. I liked the story better than way. It felt that any possible explanation couldn’t live up to the story, really. Brockmeier creates this world that is our world (except for the fact that one day, pain is illuminated) so he can ask more interesting questions than “how did this happen?”

We see the illumination through the eyes of six characters: a woman with a relatively minor injury whose hospital roommate dies; the roommates’s husband, now a widower; a special and sensitive ten year old boy; an accidental missionary; a writer; and a homeless bookseller. The connection between these people might seem gimmicky (the same journal passes from one person to the next) when it is described, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Brockmeier is a talented writer, so he can pull off things that others can’t. Maybe he shouldn’t be able to make them work, but I think he does. It isn’t a conventional novel, and is all the better for that. I tempted to go on and on about how much I love this book — because I do, I was captivated by it — but I often don’t find that kind of thing persuasive. Brockmeier can write, and his stories ask important questions.

I’ve read Brockmeier’s collection of stories View from the Seventh Layer and really liked it; this I loved. I will definitely search out the rest of his work.

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