By Keith Donohue
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 12:34 AM
In a certain kind of story, life is altered by one degree: A man awakens one morning to find he has become an insect; everyone in a city suffers a plague of blindness; the perfect knight turns out to be an empty suit of armor. The fabulist changes one detail from our everyday existence as a way of looking at life anew. The magic is not there for its own sake, but to re-enchant our imaginations and illustrate part of the human condition in a fresh and unexpected way.
In his new novel, "The Illumination," Kevin Brockmeier proposes a world in which our wounds glow, our aches flame and our illnesses shine as though lit from within. Without explanation, suddenly on a Friday night, the secret of our sufferings is exposed. "No one could disguise his pain any more. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone's impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in a glory of leukemia." By providing such a novel way to sense pain, Brockmeier enables us to experience it anew.
Part of the allure of this premise lies in his language. The light that smolders from his characters becomes irresistible through wild metaphors and vivid descriptions that dot the story like constellations. Brockmeier is a dazzling stylist with a flair for creating alternate versions of familiar existence. In his previous novel, "The Brief History of the Dead," he created an afterlife where the dead reside and go about their daily business as long as there is someone here on earth to remember them from when they were alive. The pain-illuminated world of his new novel is equally fantastic and plausible.
The plot is deceptively simple. A wife keeps a journal in which she has copied the notes her husband left her each morning of their years together. Every day he has told her some new way in which he loves her. "I love listening to you pick out a song you don't know on the piano. I love the way you'll try to point out a star to me over and over again sometimes." Thousands of these sentences are bound into seven volumes. On the day of the Illumination, the latest journal slips from her and into the hands of a stranger.
From that moment forward, we follow the journal as it moves from one person to the next. Six characters possess the book for a short while, just enough to have their lives changed by it. A data analyst crushed by the disappointment of her failed marriage is first to find the book and is filled with longing. Other recipients include a photographer whose life has been torn apart, a haunting and tormented child, a writer who mines the journal to create her own stories, and a homeless man. The lack of love in each character's life is juxtaposed by the love notes, and for each, the journal becomes a kind of illuminated manuscript for the soul.
Grief is the emotional core of the novel, and perhaps no journal recipient endures more existential misery than a missionary named Ryan. Some 30 years after he is given the book of love notes, he speculates on the significance of the Illumination. "For this was the hope that Ryan found himself nursing - that God had merely gone to sleep for a while and was not paying attention, that the glass of Heaven was dark, and the curtains were drawn, and the suffering of humankind was like the sunlight that gradually suffused the sky in the morning."
Daybreak will awaken God, and the Earth will be restored. After a lifetime of seeing pain, his own and others, God's missionary hopes this is so. But this is just a prayer, for the Illumination has not changed humanity's empathy. Not nearly enough. Our pains, sadly, remain our own.
This 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.
Donohue's new novel, "Centuries of June," will be published in June.
. By Kevin Brockmeier
. Pantheon. 257 pp. $24.95.