19 April 2011

Book Review: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

 In his latest novel, Kevin Brockmeier asks the probing question, what if our pain were the most beautiful thing about us?  The answer, of course, is that not much else would be different.  We would still inflict pain on ourselves and others, but now we can lay claim to the aesthetics without ever owning up to the cruelty behind our impulses.  Brockmeier's bold and inventive novel follows a handful of characters through The Illumination, the quasi-religious term the world has given to this new phenomenon of pain manifesting itself through an aura of colored light.  Like runners in a relay, each character hands the narrative baton off to the next person with little connection beyond happenstance.

Usually I do not care for multiple third person points of view but Brockmeier carries it off remarkably well here.  We begin with Carol Ann Page, hospitalized due to an unfortunate slip of the knife while trying to liberate a package from some stubborn tape.  She briefly shares her room with a woman who dies from internal injuries after a car wreck, but just before expiring the woman presses Carol Ann to take her journal--a journal that contains her handwritten transcriptions of all the love notes that her husband writes her each morning.  Carol Ann is reluctant to take it but eventually secrets the journal away among her belongings when the hospital staff come looking for it, at the behest of the crazed, grieving husband who survived the car wreck.

This journal, then, becomes the baton that is passed from character to character, including the bereaved widower, his autistic neighbor child, a homeless man who scouts books, a missionary who, time and again, narrowly avoids life-threatening situations, and a successful author on tour.  Brockmeier seamlessly weaves each narrative together, narrowly skating the line between realistic fiction and fantasy/speculative fiction.  And if some sections read like they might be assignments for a creative writing class, they are no less artful for their success: The section devoted to Chuck Carter, the autistic boy, mentions at one point that Chuck likes sentences with exactly ten words--he thinks and speaks that way and responds best to his parents and teachers when they speak back to him in sentences of precisely ten words.  And sure enough, a random word count of any sentence in that section yields precisely ten words.  The magic is that none of the sentences in that section feels forced or contrived.

Brockmeier is a better than average writer with better than average, succinctly written insights.  One in particular that struck me is in the section about the missionary: "Their shared childhood of bedtime prayers and family devotionals had carried Ryan to church nearly every Sunday of his life, but it had carried Judy much further, into a world of praise music, revival meetings, and mission work.  She was a Christian by constitution, whereas Ryan was merely a Christian by inertia."  As someone who has been an agnostic most of her life, living in the very buckle of the Bible belt, I have often wondered how many people I knew were Christians merely by inertia, but I did not have the phrase for it at the time.

This is a novel that spins out and then doubles back on itself, and when the seemingly tenuous connections between one section and another became made clear, each time I emitted a readerly "ohhhhhh...okay."  It is exactly what I wanted from a highly-vaunted book I read not long ago, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and did not receive. This is the book to pick up when you're looking for something out of the ordinary, a literary novel that doesn't get bogged down in its own literariness, for lack of a better phrase.  I definitely recommend it.

NB: One of my Random House sales reps gave this book to me in ARC form last year but I only got around to reading it on my flight down to Mississippi last weekend.  It was released earlier this spring in hardcover from Pantheon. 


  1. Great review! I'm going to add it to my library list. And I'm glad I got to go back and read your review of 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' on this timely occasion. Even if it DID win 2-out-of-3, I don't think I'll be picking it up.

  2. I'm currently reading another of Brockmeier's work The Brief History of the Dead, and am loving it so far. You're right about his ability to make the multiple third person narration work. I haven't felt confused or annoyed yet. It's nice to know his other works are well written as well. I'll definitely have to look into this one now!

  3. Sounds great, Emily. You've been very busy with the reviews. Did you buy any books at Lemuria?

  4. I love the concept of this book -- and now I'm intrigued by the ten-word sentence part particularly...

  5. Jenna, this is the first Brockmeier book I've read, but clearly I'll have to check out Brief History of the dead now.

    Broche (still gettin' used to that!), I think you'd like this book. And it's definitely okay to skip the Egan.

    Robyn, I only took away two books from Lemuria--the Catfish Alley book set in MS and an audio of Sarah Gruen's new book. I picked out a few others but they're going to ship them to me and I've not received them yet.

    Ben, if you read it, I hope you'll post back and let me know your thoughts.

  6. I hadn't heard of this one yet, but I have seen his Brief History of the Dead around and its reviews seem promising.


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