This response is for my dear friend Mike who asked me to read this book. I am grateful that she did. Others should know it contains spoilers and may be best read as commentary after finishing the book.
" 'Let the music play on' would be my legacy. I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say, 'I love you.' I think that if I can leave the legacy of love and passion in the world, then I think I've done my job in a world that's getting colder and colder by the day."
Lionel Richie NPR interview April 2, 2012
A man and his wife have a fairy-tale marriage. He loves her so much he counts the ways. Each day he writes one thing he cherishes about her on a note and leaves it on the refrigerator. They read like this: “I love the three perfect moles on your shoulder -- like a line of buttons. I love the sound of your voice over the phone when you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re doing a crossword puzzle from me. I love your lopsided smile….” Each day she finds the note and copies it into a diary.
But the ever-after ending is not to be.
One Friday the couple, Patricia and Jason Williford, flip and crash their car. They are separated in transport to the hospital. There, Patricia, believing that Jason is dead, can no longer bear the love diary she possesses. She passes that final volume to the Carol-Ann Page, the woman recovering in the bed next to hers.
Carol-Ann has severed her thumb sawing into a boxed package of alimony her ex-husband has maliciously made impossible to open. When she comes out of emergency room fog, her thumb is glowing as is Patricia who shortly dies in a blaze of luminous brokenness. Without relatives, Page’s pain, isolation and longing for love is depicted in the first of six episodes in Kevin Brockmeier’s post-fairy world, the Illumination, a fable of spectacular suffering.
For Patricia and Carol Ann are not the only ones with pain made manifest in resplendent light. That Friday at 8:17 p.m., auras of ache, halos of hurt, luminescent lesions and shimmering wounds reveal human suffering in all its glorious variety. Suffering becomes the most beautiful aspect of those endure it.The Illumination may be read as six stories loosely bound by the radiant pain and the passing of the diary like a relay baton from one character and story to another as the world adapts to this new phenomenon. But it is far more than that -- the emerging portrait of a world in which the happy all-alike families have been replaced with shards of family. Hardly just interestingly unhappy in their own way, they are isolated individuals reaching out for a love that no longer seems to bind the way it once did in either great novels or fairy tales.
They are, in short order: (1) the divorcee, (2) the widower Williford; (3) an abused, bullied boy with autistic-like symptoms; (4) a missionary who has taken on his dead sister’s cause;(5) a writer/single mother and (6) a homeless man who gets brutally beaten. While some encounter compassionate gestures from others or even teeter towards the promise of love, they lose the story and never reach the happy ending of good old romance the diary suggests is possible.
The book of sweet thoughts doesn’t do so well either. It gets hurled, highlighted, torn and tattered as it passes from story to story only settling for a bit on the homeless man’s blanket as an item to be traded or sold. It’s final abuse metaphorically echoes the initial car crash. Its simple prose, a catalog of the beloved’s ordinary gestures, serves as both arcane fascination for the characters and a kind of chorus in an old-fashioned love song for the reader. By contrast, Brockmeier writes about suffering with the care of a medieval illustrator. In elegant prose with finally wrought details, he creates an ornate encyclopedia of ailments.
Brockmeier is too smart a writer to simply use the fabulist device of illuminated pain to explore domesticity and romance in contemporary fiction. His light shines through a prism of ideas. In Carol-Ann’s story we read how the world reacts to the new pheonomenon – newscasters, churchgoers, internet scourers, voyeurs. People are fascinated and changed a bit by peering in on others’ pain.
Jason Williford wakes in the hospital wondering about Patricia, but to no avail: “It was like every time he asked about her, as if his question had slid through some invisible crack in the air and vanished into another world.” Those cracks are picked up by the writer much later, a fabulist who writes a happy tale about reunited lovers. Jason’s job as a photographer leads him to befriend disaffected teens who burn and cut themselves for kicks – and because the pain is so beautiful.
Down the street, a boy who can see a the pain of objects the way Temple Grandin perceives the panic of cattle peers through the window at the distressed diary. The boy also has a sense of what a family should feel like and knows that his own doesn’t fit that perception. Several acts of courage almost save him from his world.
Next is the man who, following the death of his sister, takes up her work and becomes a missionary because he “has nothing to lose” – no family. Teflon-like, he repels personal tragedy while seemingly attracting natural disasters that destroy others everywhere he treads. His story calls into question God’s role in human suffering and may also question God’s role in human knowledge. The missionary lacks the knowledge of God that his sister had. “Divine Illumination” is a pre-Thomas Aquinas philosophical/theological term for God’s role in completing human knowing the way grace completes human willing. Those interested may read about it here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/illumination/
Next up is the writer, a single mother whose child is the product of a drunken one-night stand. She has endless lesions in her mouth and finds it painful to talk. She writes fairy tales about the love that seems so elusive to her and then a fan starts following her on her book signing tours. Perhaps inspired by the diary, she writes a tale that mirrors what Jason Williford wished. Here’s what she watches on TV to pass the time on her tours ( not as glorious as the pain around her, but similar in substance):
“A sitcom was starting, the image sharp and true on the plasma screen. She tried to pay attention to the story rather than the play of shapes and colors, but it was nothing special, a show like every other, where all the people were assembled from light, and their problems made them lovable, and their smallest gestures set off waves of swirling photons.”
The final story is the most brutal, a tale that combines homelessness and street violence in a world that seems almost post-apocalyptic, where (pardon the puns) the nuclear family has been nuked, the fable writer has been benched and the love notes have crashed. Here, Morse sells battered books to the two types who are interested, Good Samaritans and readers; others avoid him. People in this world include Adam, who has somehow contracted poison ivy on his ankles and Helen who is the mere shipwreck of Helen. Morse increasingly has the ability to know other’s thoughts and feelings as he observes their artful illuminations. His suffering is the most brutally inflicted: his light the longest.
But ultimately it is writer Brockmeier’s brilliance that shines as the evanescent ever- after of happy lives succumbs to the light show of eternal suffering in the Illumination.