The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. 272 pp)

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of The View from the Seventh Layer, The Brief History of the Dead, The Truth about Celia, Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children’s novels. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, among other publications. He has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Illustrate and Elevate

While in high school, I learned a writing technique that remains a tried-and-true method for introducing an essay, lecture, or blog post. Coined “illustrate and elevate,” the procedure recommends referencing an illustration that draws a reader/listener to recognition. Whether a story, a simple truth, or an analogy, this illustration elevates the reader/listener to the level of the writer/speaker. The presenter and presentee proceed on the same level toward the common goal. In The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier utilizes the motif of pain manifested as visible light in order to introduce a character-driven narrative about people. Sadly, I am unsure whether or not his illustration holds.

Seeing the Unseen

The momentous event of light notifying humanity about pain becomes known as “the Illumination.” It happens briskly and with no explanation. In the course of a day, pain shifts from a suffering seen only through its symptoms to a visible personal trait. Such changes cause a shift in medicine.

“The Illumination had ushered in a new age of critical care. Doctors no longer had to rely on their patients to tell them how badly they were suffering. ‘Head light and heart light take priority, of course,’ Dr. Alstadt told her, ‘along with any obvious major traumas. Then we take all the other lights and make a visual determination of their severity’” (21).

Like a zombie movie that refuses to explain the source of the disease, descriptions of the root cause of the Illumination differ. Is it a religious judgment? Is it evolution? Will the light remain indefinitely or will it fade in time?

“For a while, [one of the characters] had believed, along with the crystal healers and the televangelists, that the light that had come to their injuries would herald a new age of reconciliation and earthly brotherhood. You would think that taking the pain of every human being and making it so starkly visible—every drunken headache and frayed cuticle, every punctured lung and bowel pocked with cancer—would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, or at least ripples of pity, and for a while maybe it had, but now there were children who had come of age knowing nothing else, running to their mother to have a Band-Aid put on their flickers, asking, Why is the sky blue? And, Why does the sun hurt?, and still they grew into their destructiveness, and still there learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world. And every war left behind the shrapnel scars and shattered limbs of a hundred thousand ruined bodies. And every earthquake and every hurricane produced a holocaust of light” (164).

Blinded by the Light

Yet herein lies the disconnect. The Illumination carries no significance to the plot of the novel. Quickly, the story in this book follows the recent short-stories-connecting-to-make-a-theme trend in literature. Each chapter follows a new protagonist and the only thread that connects each character is the possession of a personal journal.

The journal’s pages are graced with pithy statements of love from the husband, quick and quirky. The purity of love found in the text enamors its readers as the book changes hands in the wake of the Illumination.

But this journal is the only thread linking this story and it carries little connection to this unique pain-as-light setting. While the Illumination is a fascinating illustration, it doesn’t elevate the reader to the plane of the author. In other words, I am unsure if the Illumination adds anything to the storyline and without this interesting setting, I highly doubt the story is worth reading.

Thus, despite my intrigue, I did not enjoy The Illumination. With a schism between story and setting, I felt like the book never connected on the deeper levels I feel a book requires. The Illumination is an easy read, but I don’t think I can recommend it.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Amy

    This book sounds fascinating. I'm always attracted to an intriguing premise. Sometimes an intriguing premise can fizzle out because of pedestrian writing (Henning Mankell's The Man From Beijing) or ridiculous plotting (Man From Beijing again). But I don't get the impression from your review that that's the problem with this book. I still kinda want to read it, because that premise *is* so intriguing.

    • Donovan Richards

      Thanks for the comment, Amy. Yes, the premise is intriguing and the book moves quickly so it does not require much commitment. You might like it but I just wish that there was something more to the book. It has such a great premise that I just want it to be better!

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