Reading Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination has been an interesting experience for me because I didn’t much like it, and when I took a look at some reviews, I found a bunch of glowing ones and a couple that were negative, so opinion seems to be inconsistent but mostly positive. I didn’t, however, do a very thorough survey, so I don’t really know. But it’s interesting to me to read glowing reviews of a book I didn’t like; it doesn’t make me doubt my feelings about the book, but it does make me wonder … what was going on in other people’s heads. Not that I doubt their experience, either; I just wonder, as I often do, about this whole business of reviewing. Does anybody really know what makes a good book or a bad book?
Anyway, the book is really more a series of linked stories than it is a novel. The are six stories, each with a different main character, and they are united by two things; the first is a book full of love notes from a husband to his wife that gets passed from character to character. We meet the wife in the hospital just as she is about to die from a car crash. In a gesture of sadness and defeat, just before her death she passes the book on to the woman with whom she shares a hospital room. The book contains copies of daily notes the husband had left telling his wife something that he loved about her:
I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric.
There are pages and pages of these notes, and together they tell the story of a marriage. The book travels from character to character, getting stained and ripped and losing pages along the way. The book means different things to the various characters, but it makes them all think about what it means to love another person.
The other unifying factor in the book is that all the sudden for no reason anyone knows of, pain becomes visible as light, hence “the illumination.” It’s now possible to see when someone is ill, or if they are suffering from arthritis or kidney stones or scrapes and bruises. The more severe the pain, the brighter the light. This makes a simple walk down the street an entirely different experience. Now, you’re confronted with pain at practically every moment; you can see just how much everyone is suffering, how common it is to live with pain. No one can hide illnesses anymore; your cancer is immediately obvious, as is your migraine.
Brockmeier’s characters are all very different types: there is an author, a young boy who is troubled and refuses to talk, an evangelical missionary, a homeless man, and a photographer. (The illumination is a boon for professional photographers: imagine the amazing photos you could take if people’s pain were visible.) The range of characters and situations is impressive.
In spite of all these interesting things going on, however, I never connected with the book. Perhaps there is simply too much going on. It remained an intellectual exercise for me, and the intellectual exercise wasn’t a particularly satisfying one. Brockmeier is exploring the meaning of pain and suffering, and the narrative occasionally stops to ponder such questions as how pain changes us and what suffering does to our faith in God. I didn’t find that this questioning led anywhere, though, or added up to much.
It would have helped to know in advance that this was basically a collection of linked stories rather than a more traditional novel (generally I prefer not to know much about a book I’m going to read, so I avoid it when I can, but this is an exception — it’s good to know whether you’re going to get a traditional narrative arc or not). But I’m not sure I would have liked it that much more if I had known; there was something a little lifeless and dry about the book that made me reluctant to pick it up again.
But other readers have thought this book is wonderful, so it’s possible that you will too.