Illumination (Brockmeier)

The Illumination
Kevin Brockmeier, 2011
Knopf Doubleday
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375425318

What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? At 8:17 on a Friday night, the Illumination commences. Every wound begins to shine, every bruise to glow and shimmer.

And in the aftermath of a fatal car accident, a private journal of love notes, written by a husband to his wife, passes into the keeping of a hospital patient and from there through the hands of five other suffering people, touching each of them uniquely. The six recipients a data analyst, a photojournalist, a schoolchild, a missionary, a writer, and a street vendor inhabit an acutely observed, familiar-yet-strange universe, as only Kevin Brockmeier could imagine it: a world in which human pain is expressed as illumination, so that one s wounds blaze with light.

As we follow the path of the journal from stranger to stranger, we come to understand how they are all connected in the human pain and experience. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 6, 1972
Where—Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
Education—B.A., Southwest Missouri State University; M.F.A, 
   Iowa Writers' Workshop
Awards—3 O'Henry Awards, Nelson Algren Award, Italo
   Calvino Short Fiction Award, James Michener-Paul Engle
   Fellowship; National Endowment for the Arts grant
Currently—lives in Little Rock, Arkansas

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of Things That Fall from the Sky (2002), The Truth About Celia (2003), The Brief History of the Dead (2006), and The Illumination (2011) He has also written two children's novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Georgia Review, The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.

He is the recipient of a Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener–Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards—one of which was a first prize—and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
[E]legantly written...Brockmeier devotes his considerable gifts of description to the illuminated wounds of his characters, using lush, quiet prose to detail their cancer, abuse, self-mutilation and just plain old age.... Brockmeier relies on his usual poise to make the Illumination real. The reader never doubts that, on a certain day at a certain time, light begins to pour from our wounds. The strange transformation is wonderfully human, down to the social awkwardness it engenders.
Scott Hutchins - New York Times Book Review

Brockmeier is a dazzling stylist with a flair for creating alternate versions of familiar existence...[an] elegiac tone pervades the book, and indeed, it is the mood of much of Brockmeier's work. He is a poet of grief and longing whose precision is reminiscent of Steven Millhauser's fiction. Brockmeier resists the easy resolution of allegory, and that makes the premise of this novel successful. The Illumination is a sad and beautiful novel, well worth the heartache evoked in its pages.
Keith Donohue - Washington Post

In Brockmeier's spectacular latest, pain manifests itself as visible light after a mysterious event called "the Illumination," revealing humanity to be mortally wounded, and yet Brockmeier finds in these overlapping, storylike narratives, beauty amid the suffering. Jason Williford, a photojournalist, loses his wife in a traffic accident and fixates on a troubled teenage girl who teaches him to cultivate pain "in a dreamlike vesper." Chuck Carter, a battered and bullied neighbor boy, steals a journal of love notes from Jason's house, and later gives the journal to door-knocking evangelist Ryan Shifrin, who found his faith after watching his younger sister die from cancer. Telescoping into his decades of service to the church, Ryan wonders at the civil strife and disasters that "produce a holocaust of light." Through accounts of quotidian suffering depict humanity's quiet desperation—the agony of a severed thumb, the torture of chronic mouth ulcers—Brockmeier's careful reading of his characters' hearts and minds gives readers an inspiring take on suffering and the often fleeting nature of connection.
Publishers Weekly

In a familiar but parallel universe, the wounds, diseases, sores, and tumors of the inhabitants begin emitting light, evidently in varying colors and shades. It seems they still hurt but are now visible to others. This work covers the stories of several individuals, from a woman who stabs herself accidently to a photographer who has a car accident; a writer suffering from sores in her mouth to a young boy who is a victim of brutal abuse. Linking the tales is a book, originally compiled by the photographer, of love notes to his now deceased wife, which is passed from one character to the next and conveys a message to each according to their painful circumstances. The novel ends with a homeless man getting thoroughly beaten up by local hoods. Verdict: A capable writer, Brockmeier (The Brief History of the Dead) succeeds in describing the depressing circumstances of the characters, along with passing observations of a fragmentary and disorienting nature. Some readers may find this uplifting and inspiring, but others will feel pained by the suffering the novel seeks to illuminate. —Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta
Library Journal

A soft-hearted spiritual parable that aims for beguiling but succumbs to cloying. The author's first novel since The Brief History of the Dead (2006) is another vaguely futuristic fable with meditations on mortality, which explore the beauty and redemption in suffering.... More illumination than revelation.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Does your understanding of the Illumination change throughout the novel? Why or why not? What do you think it is, and what causes it?

2. Discuss the structure of The Illumination. What is the effect of dividing the book into sections? With which characters did you most identify? Why?

3. How do the epigraphs that begin each section of The Illumination evolve throughout the book? Does the change in tone of the epigraphs reflect how the characters reactions to the Illumination change? And, your own? Why or why not?

4. The Carol Ann Page section begins with an epigraph that says, in part, The light is worth the pain. How does this relate to Carol Ann Page, and to the rest of the characters in The Illumination? Do you think that the Illumination makes the pain that each person experiences more endurable? Please explain.

5. According to the narrator, The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination. No one could disguise his pain anymore [p. 33]. How does this influence Carol Ann Page s interactions with others, particularly Dr. Alstadt? What other characters interactions are affected by the presence of the Illumination?

6. How does the journal help shape your understanding of Patricia and Jason Williford as a couple? Compare and contrast their relationship with the relationship that Carol Ann Page has with her ex-husband. Why do you think that Carol Ann decides to take the journal home from the hospital with her?

7. Jason comes to regret the last note that he left for Patricia before her death, which said, I love the spaghetti patterns you leave on the wall [p. 50]. Why is he regretful? How does the meaning of this note change following her death?

8. In the aftermath of Jason s accident, his agony was nearly indistinguishable from bliss, and while he originally does not court pain, he did not shrink away from it, either [p. 48]. How and why does he begin to court pain? Does it help him deal with his grief over Patricia s death? How or how not?

9. Who are the cutters? How does Jason meet them? Why do you think that Jason feels a certain kinship with them? What does he gain from his relationship with them, particularly Melissa? Why does he let her live with him? What do you think about his decision to do so?

10. Chuck believes that his duty is to be the Superman of lifeless objects They were simple, childlike, and they could not protect themselves [p. 93]. What in particular about the journal makes Chuck think that it needs rescuing? Why does he ultimately give the journal away?

11. Why does Chuck call his father his Pretend Dad ? Discuss their relationship. How does Chuck s relationship with his father affect other aspects of his life?

12. The narrator says that Judy Shifrin was a Christian by constitution, whereas Ryan was merely a Christian by inertia [p. 133]. What does this statement mean? Does this affect Ryan s missionary work? Or, do you think, as Ryan does that evangelism was a job like so many others, where it did not matter what you believed, only what you did [p. 144]? Please elaborate.

13. After Judy dies, the narrator says And so the first part was over, and [Ryan] could begin teaching himself not to remember [p. 133]. How does Ryan deal with his grief over Judy s death? Compare and contrast Ryan s reaction to grief to that of Jason Williford. Does the Illumination help both men to cope with their losses? How?

14. Although Ryan encounters much suffering and sickness through his missionary work, he remains healthy throughout. How does this affect his faith? When Ryan fears God s love is merely decorative [p. 164], what does he mean? How does the Illumination help illustrate this fear?

15. Nina Poggione finds her pain shameful appalling. She hated to exhibit it, hated the attention it brought her [p. 183]. Yet, when John Catau asks to see her ulcer, she obliges him. Why do you think she chooses to do so? What affect does the action have on their relationship? Do you, as the reader, learn anything more about her because of this action? What?

16. Describe Nina s story A Fable for the Living. What is the effect of interspersing the story throughout the section about Nina? How does the emotional pain depicted in A Fable for the Living contrast with Nina s physical pain?

17. At a reading, Nina tells an audience member that with her first book she had seen the world as a narrative, seen human lives as narratives. Now, instead, she saw them as stories. She wasn t sure what had happened [p. 205]. What does she mean by this statement? Based on the structure of The Illumination, how do you think that Kevin Brockmeier sees the world? How do you? Why?

18. One of Nina s readers tells her you write these stories about characters who have great sectors of what one would ordinarily regard as the common human experience entirely unavailable to them they don t seem to realize it, but they do [p. 212]. Do you think the same could be said of Kevin Brockmeier s characters? Who in particular and why?

19. Who is Lee Hartz? Why do you think that the author waits until midway through Morse s section to reveal his name? Why does Lee continue to visit Morse? How does his relationship with Morse evolve? Does your impression of him change as a result? In what ways? 20. In a description of Morse, the narrator says, It was people they were the problem [p 225]. In what way are people problematic for Morse? Is his relationship with Lee Hartz different? If so, how?

21. Why is Morse unable to part with the journal? What does he learn about himself in the process?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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