by Kevin Brockmeier
I was encouraged to read this novel via a virtual nudge on Twitter from writers Lee Rourke and Stuart Evers. Now you have to be careful with these writer recommendations because what they're often enthusiastic about is the technique or something that has tickled their writerly instincts rather than those of a reader, but there was something about their enthusiasm that struck me as from the heart, especially when coupled with the book's potential mawkishness. It is one of those novels with a simple concept like Saramago's Blindness where a universal change to human experience suddenly appears and alters perception. Here, pain suddenly becomes visible as light, a phenomenon we get to relive a few times in the novel with its multiple narrators, but first through the eyes of Carol Anne Page who cuts her thumb whilst attempting to open an aggressively sealed parcel from her ex-husband. It is later in the hospital that she notices the event that someone will eventually dub the Illumination.
It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to her that the light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought she could live there and be happy.
In the bed next to Carol is a woman hospitalised by a car crash. With the doctor's instructing her to rest and telling her little about the condition of her husband who was also in the car, she presumes the worst and slowly succumbs to her injuries. One possession she had tried to press on Carol before her death is a journal filled with her husband's daily professions of love.
I love the little parentheses you get beside your lips when you're smiling - the way the left one is deeper than the right. I love the fact that I know I can keep telling you things I love about you for the rest of our lives and I'll never run out.
I've deliberately chosen a couple of icky ones there to highlight the potential danger of this book. The journal and its trajectory through various hands is the linking device of this novel and so we get to read plenty of those sentences that begin with I love... and when you combine that with the very idea of pain that glows there are plenty that might be turned off right away. But not so fast. Brockmeier's central conceit might be dazzling but he doesn't use it to show off. In fact he almost leaves it alone. This isn't a novel about what the world learns from this change, in fact you could say it's almost the opposite, as one character remarks - 'Funny how quickly a person can get used to a miracle.' Brockmeier is totally focused on his characters and their personal pain. Carol finds companionship from her doctor so that the two of them transform 'from doctor and patient to two fragile human beings both afflicted by nostalgia and self-pity.' The husband who had made those quotidian quotations turns out to have survived the accident but with plenty of scars including the curse of memory. When he accidentally befriends a teenage girl, who along with many of her friends is a self-harmer (something quite literally illuminated by Brockmeier's understanding), he sees a way in which he might be able to move into another life without his wife - 'she would teach him how to manipulate his body, inflicting those small, perfect impairments that rid him of his entire history.'
Now, I'm sure in the past I have mentioned my inherent dislike of child narrators and it really only comes about because they are often done so badly. Authors: if you are considering writing as a child narrator can I please implore that you read the Chuck Carter section of this novel for some guidance on how to do it properly. We realise there is something a little different about Chuck almost immediately as he explains to us the basic rules.
The house was where he lived when it got dark. He also lived there on weekends, plus during snowy weather. He lived in school for eight hours a day. He wasn't allowed to sleep there, only in the house. The school had three separate times: class-, lunch-, and recess-. The house had five: chore-, play-, meal-, bath-, and bed-. Both the school and the house were two stories tall. Both had time-out corners, and both had magnolias around them. They were different from each other in one big way. The school kids who shouted and knocked Chuck over. In the house there was only him and his parents.
See. That's how you do it. Not irritating or false or cute or tricksy. Specific, consistent and, even in that short paragraph, enlightening. If you add to that the fact that Chuck always refers to his 'pretend dad' then you know all you need to know about this boy to begin with. The Illumination for Chuck is slightly different, coming not so much as a revelation but a confirmation of what he has always known.
When you hit people, or pushed them, something terrible happened. Their bodies changed underneath the skin, straining, tightening like ropes...It looked like something inside them was trying to escape. It looked like a ghost wanted out of their bones...So when the light came, he wasn't surprised one bit.He has always seen pain but seen it inanimate objects too, ever since lashing out at his toy train at the age of five and breaking it. In the same way that everyone can now see each other's pain, Chuck can see the glow that emanates from that journal and after he steals it and then places it in the hands of a missionary for it to continue its increasingly battered journey there is a sense that it is a symbol of the buffeting love must still endure even in a world where the pain of others is as clear as the light of day.
It's also worth pointing out the achievement of writing about light and luminescence with barely a repeated phrase. Brockmeier's variety in describing the Illumination is astounding.
On any city street you could spot the pulse flares of impacted heels, in any city hospital the elongated V's of stab wounds, while at any country fair, any minor-league baseball game, you would find skin cancer pocks like small clusters of stars, sprained knees like forks of lightning, dislocated shoulders like the torchlit rooms of ancient houses. People in the city exhibited the sickly luster of pollution rashes and the silver sparks of carpal tunnel syndrome, while in the country they wore the shimmering waves of home tattoo infections, the glowing white zippers of ligature abrasions. In the city you had your lungs and your stomach to distress you, in the country your skin and your liver, and everywhere, everywhere, there were the agonies of your head and your heart.
It is also beautiful so that even if the event itself doesn't seem to lead to any great progress in human interaction, the reader of the novel does feel as if a light has been shone on something about our human soul.