By Kevin Brockmeier
Every day, I am in pain. Every day, I read. Coincidence? Maybe not. I have multiple sclerosis to blame for my quotidian pain. But today I suffer from a form of pain that can’t be attributed to chronic illness, but rather, to chronic habit. I’ve got a crick in my neck. I blame the brilliant author Kevin Brockmeier. His novel, The Illumination, near immobilized me. It’s not the kind of book you walk away from (assuming you can walk.)
The premise of the novel is deceptively simple. One afternoon, there is a random change in the universe. Pain takes on a new property. Pain emits light.
To give an example: if I were a character in the world of The Illumination, there would be a white light emanating out the back of my neck, shimmering from the cervical through the thoracic regions of my spine. My tingly calves would glow with neurologic noise. It is entirely possible that my hair would be adorned with bright pinpricks, like the ones I see on MRIs of my lesion riddled brain. As my pain increases with the passing hours, so would the wattage. By nightfall, I’d be a beacon. It would be impossible to fall asleep or stay asleep beside me, as I am also an insomniac. No doubt I would be confined to a rocky outcrop on the coast of Maine, where I would be propped up facing the ocean. I would accept my fate as a living lighthouse, and wear a long white t-shirt dress with one thick red horizontal stripe.
Or maybe not. The actual characters in the Illumination are more interesting than that. They don’t come off as metaphors, but as ordinary people, doing the extraordinary job of expanding the narrative while simultaneously moving it closer to the goal. The personal, the religious, the literary, and the cosmic ramifications of The Illumination are explored from multiple points of view, all equally compelling. That’s quite a trick.
This playful narrative opens with a character that blames her pain on her ex-husband, in much the same way as I blame the crick in my neck on Kevin Brockmeier. It’s not Kevin Brockmeier’s fault that I got a crick in my neck trying to unwrap the many layers of meaning in his book, any more than it’s the ex-husband’s fault that his wife nipped off the tip of her thumb while trying to cut through a package he’d wrapped in “a thick layer of transparent tape, the kind fretted with hundreds of white threads, the latest in his long campaign of bring needless difficulty to her life.”
Brockmeier’s novel is fretted with perhaps hundreds of narrative threads, none of them needless, each a delight. I would love to dissect every chapter in this post; but I will leave the pleasure of discovery to you. It’s the first novel I’ve read that managed to coerce me into literally reading through another point of view. Get ready for the shock of recognition once you realize that this is not an ordinary novel, but an elaborate game. Move over, Nabokov.