Metaphysics is the philosophical “speculation upon questions that are unanswerable to scientific observation, analysis, or experiment.” The novelist Kevin Brockmeier, named one of the “best young American novelists” by the literary magazine Granta, seems to be well on his way to creating his own genre – metaphysical fiction.
Brockmeier is building his literary career by shining a light into the areas where the timid among us would rather not look. What sets Brockmeier apart from novelists like, say, Chuck Palahniuk who use the approach to shock and provoke readers, is that he tell his stories with an understated grace. His novels unfold in a straightforward manner with no attempt to explain the fantastic events that are taking place. The unexplainable just happens.
Brockmeier’s previous novel A Brief History of the Dead takes place largely in The City, a sort of way station where people arrive after they’ve died. The dead remain in The City as long as they are remembered on Earth. What happens when they leave the City is a mystery as are the events on Earth, which are having an impact on the dwindling population of the City. It’s a haunting novel that marked Brockmeier as an author to watch.
The premise of his new novel, The Illumination, is a world where one day physical pain is suddenly visible as a shining light emanating from their bodies of the afflicted, which the news channels dub “the Illumination.”
“The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination. No one could disguise his pain anymore, You could hardly step out in public without noticing the 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.”
The effect of the illumination is to make that part of themselves that people try to hide from the world visible and beautiful to others. The brave face has been removed.
With each chapter, The Illumination explores the phenomenon’s impact through a new character, the stories linked by the passing of a young wife’s journal of the daily love notes that her husband left each morning on the refrigerator.
“I love how embarrassing you find your middle name. I love your Free Cell addiction. I love how irritated you get at smiley face icons…I love the way you’ll hold a new book to your face and fan through the pages to inhale the scent.”
Passing from person to person by theft, gift, or blind luck, the notebook links the characters, knowingly or unknowingly, one to another. The notebook becomes a curiosity for some of its owners, for others it becomes a talisman, carried around as a proof that there is a better life out there somewhere. Only a very few choose to let it go.
One might expect visible pain to lead to greater compassion and understanding, a kumbaya moment so to speak. Or for the notebook, with all of it’s echoes of a Nicholas Sparks novel, to tip this taut novel into a sappy mess. Brockmeier, however, skirts the maudlin and makes the story about our imperfect world, where tabloids exploit the phenomenon with photos of particularly beautiful suffering and people quickly learn to look away and maintain a professional, disinterested distance.
The Illumination is a gripping read that raises ‘Big Questions’ that stick with the reader long after the book is closed. Brockmeier’s “what if” storytelling is one more blow to the crumbling barrier between science fiction and literary fiction.
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