Kevin Brockmeier – The Illumination
A Pulitzer for Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in 2009; the National Book Award for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan in 2010; generous praise for Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and many more – even as prejudice against the short story as “unsellable” persists, the form has been stealthily reinventing itself and multiplying. So it’s amazing to me that Kevin Brockmeier’s shimmeringly beautiful novel of linked stories didn’t get more attention in 2011.
The Illumination follows a journal of transcribed quirky, daily love-notes (look up @illumination_bk on Twitter if you’d like a sample). Accidentally acquired by a hospital patient who shares a ward with its owner in the novel’s opening section, the journal passes back to the author of the notes (a bereaved photographer), and then onward to an autistic schoolboy, a reluctant evangelist, an ulcer-afflicted novelist and a homeless bookseller, whose lives brush against each other with the very lightest of touches, but leave lasting impressions.
The central “what if..?” – a question that Brockmeier is consistently so very good at throwing up in the air and then running away with – is that of pain becoming visible. Wounds, illnesses and minor ailments all begin to emit startling, intense light, with the phenomenon eventually being dubbed the ‘Illumination’ of the title. Brockmeier uses the device, and the linkage of his stories, to explore both the universality of suffering and loss, and the individuality of our ways of coping with it.
From the self-harm of the journal’s original author and his teen sidekicks, for whom “the agony was nearly indistinguishable from bliss”, to timid, selectively-mute Chuck, who dreads conflict and finds things “hurt just a little too much to be beautiful”, the book meditates on the many ways we touch each other, and on the universal role of pain in our lives. The Illumination is gorgeously written, with a deep generosity of spirit and thoughtful, careful characterisation.
Brockmeier has won prizes and critical plaudits in North America, and arrived on these shores in 2006 with The Brief History of the Dead. One of the most literally chilling novels I have ever read – its descriptions of its heroine gradually freezing, alone in the Antarctic as civilization gradually winks out around the globe, made me physically shiver – the book was well, if not widely, reviewed; 2007 saw him elected one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Frequently shelved under science fiction in the US, his books blend elements of the fantastic with an impressively controlled and finely-tuned prose style. Has he been undermarketed over here? Perhaps. But his work deserves a much wider audience, and I can think of no better place to start than The Illumination.
Rachael Beale has spent much of her career experimenting with combinations of words and technology, writing and editing for technical companies, or doing technical things for literary ones.
Amongst other things, she is a web manager for the London Review of Books, and an advisory board member and contributor for Belletrista.com.
You can follow her on Twitter @flossieteacake