In Kevin Brockmeier’s third novel, the miraculous appearance of lights emanating from human suffering produces striking images, but they’re unnecessarily bound by the shell of a plot. The Illumination is the ascendant term for the moment when everyone with a wound or illness begins to radiate visible light from the site of injury. Recovering from a kitchen accident, Carol Ann initially attributes the effect to her pain medications, until she sees it in the hospital patients around her and in the handsome young doctor attending her in spite of the radiant web of pain in his neck. Carol Ann recovers, but her neighbor (a victim of a car accident) isn’t so lucky; she leaves behind a handwritten journal of love notes from her husband Jason, whom she isn’t aware survived her. Jason retrieves the book, but lets it fall into someone else’s hands as he adjusts to life as a widower, befriending a group of self-mutilating teenagers.
The book of love notes forms a chain among The Illumination’s six interlocking stories, and offers several perspectives on how the Illumination affects daily life, capturing the general fascination with (and search for explanations about) the unexplained lights. Yet with a conceit as strong as The Illumination’s opening idea, it isn’t necessary. Brockmeier sneaks in digressions about the new etiquette codes around the sick and injured, or the varieties of light seen by a missionary character whom natural disasters follow like a magnet, but he constantly pushes that notion behind the more ordinary pains of human interaction. He has a fascinating concept, but he doesn’t toy with it enough for it to be fully mapped. Instead, he gives precedence to plots revolving around missed chances and mistaken identities.
Most resonant and aware of her own pain, ironically, is the writer Nina, who at first welcomed the Illumination as a way of excusing her preoccupation with the persistent mouth ulcers that make reading her work aloud a painful duty. When she finds the love notes in a hotel drawer, it’s an afterthought, necessarily only so she can join the chain of protagonists. The Illumination ultimately can’t decide what to say with its shining images, and the notes’ totemic luster isn’t enough to replace a core idea. But while The Illumination loses control of its miracle, it presents a number of enduringly beautiful, surprising visions.