Monday, April 25, 2011

Brockmeier's novel is afire

Originally printed February 16, 2011

Imagine that you've nicked yourself shaving, but not only do you have to worry about stopping the blood, you also have to worry about specks of light shining out of the wound.

Or imagine that you're in a car accident at night and you don't have to worry about calling anyone because streams of light are gushing from your injuries and alerting everyone for miles that a near fatal crash has occurred.

Or imagine that you find a man beaten and left for dead in alley, but no one pays any attention to him because, although "his wounds burned out of him like a fire ... his pain would cease, and his body would heal, and the light would last forever."

That's the magical-realist setting Kevin Brockmeier -- author of "The Brief History of the Dead" -- describes in his new novel, "The Illumination" (Pantheon Books, 2011).

Brockmeier imagines a world in which, for some unknown reason, human pain takes on a luminescent quality. Hospital workers triage patients just by noting the color and brightness of the light. The chronically ill can't hide their conditions because their pain shines through like visible x-rays. Overnight the world has to come to terms with private pain suddenly providing a public -- and often beautiful -- light show.

Brockmeier's extended conceit could have gone wrong in so many ways. At any point, the philosophical speculation could have fallen flat and been discarded as a failed experiment. And over the course of its 257 pages, the novel risks being the literary equivalent of a Saturday Night Live skit allowed to go on for far too long.

But Brockmeier's conceit, while overarching, never gets overwhelming. It simply provides him a unique novel-writing tool for shining light on the psychological dark corners of his six, interlocking main characters:

• Carol Ann Page, a recently divorced woman fascinated by the light gushing from her soon-to-be amputated thumb.

• Jason Williford, a 35-year-old photojournalist who survives a car accident and, in mourning for his wife, learns the visual beauty of self-mutilation from a group of older teenagers.

• Chuck Carter, a neuro-atypical 10-year-old who was attentive to the visual aura of pain long before the worldwide illumination and who can see similar auras coming from plants and beloved objects.

• Ryan Shifrin, a missionary for a new religious denomination that grows out of the newly illuminated world -- its tracts prominently quoting Revelation 22:5: "For the Lord God will illumine them."

• Nina Poggione, a writer/character who is to Brockmeier what Kilgore Trout was to Kurt Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse Five" -- someone who helps ground the novel's imagined world in reality by contrasting it against even more fabulistic titles and fantastic plot possibilities.

• And Morse Putnum Strawbridge, a homeless bookseller whose pain and death bring the novel into its final focus.

Most amazingly, Brockmeier's literary ability lives up to the hauntingly appropriate epigraphs from great writers he uses to introduce each new section -- from Hugh Blumenfeld ("The light is worth the pain"), to Whittaker Chambers ("There is nothing more important than this wound"), to J.G. Ballard ("The world was beginning to flower into wounds"), to Simone Weil ("Pain is the color of certain events"), to Joy Williams ("To eradicate the sickness would be to eradicate the self") or to Franz Kafka ("It is enough that the arrows fit exactly in the wounds they have made").

To ask Brockmeier about his inspirations and literary ambitions, come to Prairie Lights Books at 7 p.m. Feb. 16.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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