The Illumination

Brockmeier, Kevin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell
  • Date of entry: Jun-28-2017


Brockmeier constructed this novel as six individual stories. No overriding plot carries across all the stories, and none of the individual stories has much of a plot either. But, each is tangentially related to the subsequent story through a journal comprising love notes written daily by a husband to his wife that passes from one story to the next.  

I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric. I love the scent of your hair just after you’ve taken a shower… (p. 16)  

The stories share characters, but only insofar as they are involved in the transfer of the journal.  

Also connecting the stories is a phenomenon in which visible light is produced from the location of the body where there is pain, injury, or disease, and in one case an inanimate object—the journal. It just started to happen.  

The Illumination: who had coined the term, which pundit or editorial writer, no one knew, but soon enough—within hours, it seemed—that was what people were calling it. The same thing was happening all over the world. In hospitals and prison yards, nursing home and battered women’s shelters, wherever the sick and injured were found, a light could be seen flowing from their bodies. Their wounds were filled with it, brimming. (p. 138)  

The Illumination
is part of every story, but never the main subject. It’s noticed, it’s discussed, it’s contemplated, and eventually accommodated as part of daily existence:  “everyone began to accept that pain now came coupled together with light.” (p. 139) The Illumination is always there, was always there, and will always be there because “there is no such thing as photonic degradation, that light was effectively immortal, or at least as immortal as the universe itself.” (p. 256)


Elizabeth Scarry, in her book, The Body in Pain, says that “to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” She thinks the doubt results from the absence of any way for people in pain to describe what they are experiencing. “Physical pain not only resists language, but actively destroys it,” she says, and then puts a finer point on the problem: “It resists objectification in language.” Thus, if a person doesn’t manifest outward signs of pain, and language can’t be used by the person in pain to convey the experience, then it’s all that much easier for others to operate as if pain doesn’t exist for that person. Furthermore, the person in pain might even prefer that others don’t know about it.  

In this book, Brockmeier doesn’t let either the people with the pain or anyone encountering them off the hook. He picks up on Scarry’s assertion that “fictional analogues” are needed to fill in where language fails. The Illumination is the fictional analogue he used to give pain, injury, and pathology an undeniable and observable form. It allows everyone to see: “The old men with prostate conditions. The diabetes patients with ulcerated feet. The arthritis sufferer with swollen joints. All of them were illuminated with the telltale signs of their own infirmity.” (p. 140). Brockmeier then imagines how we would respond to this new level of exposure to and certainty about other peoples’ suffering.

One response Brockmeier offers is practical. For example, health care protocols could incorporate The Illumination: “Head light and heart light take priority, of course,” an emergency doctor says in one scene. (p. 21) Responses to The Illumination offered at the personal level are not so straightforward. Some are rooted in confusion, as when one character wonders, “Was it discourteous to admit that you could see a person’s sickness playing out on the surface of his body? What if it was a form of sickness that had always previously been hidden?” (p. 140) Other responses are more nihilistic, as when another character says, “It was important that the workplace remain professional. They all tried their best not to acknowledge one another’s suffering.” (p. 33) Generations coming of age after the beginning of The Illumination would never get a chance to consider its significance as they instead just “learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard.” (p.164)

The more nihilistic view of The Illumination leads Brockmeier into questioning God. Channeling Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan in The Brothers Karamozov, Brockmeier uses his missionary character in one story to wonder how there can be God and at the same time “A world of spinal meningitis. Of cerebral palsy. Of neurochemical imbalances that made the weakest among people hate having to exist. Of genetic disorders that blanketed their skin in disorders. Could He see them in their pain? Was He awake at all behind the lit windows of Heaven?” He wonders further, “Was it possible for God to sin?” (p. 166).

Brockmeier suggests that everyone we encounter is experiencing pain and suffering in some way, and asks us to consider how we might react when we can have no doubt about it. He proposes, more or less, that given the choice to know through a phenomenon like The Illumination we would prefer to avert our gaze so as to maintain doubt. Elizabeth Scarry would be disappointed. Brockmeier would say blame God.


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count