As in his last novel, The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier diligently, domestically dramatizes a cosmic conceptual hook. In six long-short-story-length chapters, linked by planted coincidences and framed with epigraph passkeys (no contemporary writer picks more on-point epigraphs), six characters suffer and witness nearly infinite varieties of physical pain—which, following an abrupt, worldwide cataclysm, glows.
One character notices a "neck starlit with a fresh shaving rash," to another, "arthritic fingers looked like brown twigs coated in ice," and a third sees how "lungs shone with cancer… like chandeliers." Some detect a gleam emanating from anxious brows, animals, or even inanimate objects—pain is subjective, so plenty is still caused (even as, in the most structurally daring chapter, a missionary lives through a faith-testing half-century of terrorist acts and natural disasters). Meanwhile, through the hands of lonely accident victims, self-mutilators basking in their anguish, and an abused autistic boy, travels an opposite chorus: a journal, recording a husband's daily love notes to his wife. ("I love those old yearbook pictures of you." "I love the ‘bloop' sound you make whenever you drop something." "I love how dark your hair gets after you wash it.") The Illumination is plangent in every direction like the best and worst aspects of a Terrence Malick movie: all things shining.
As the battered journal touches a mid-career midlist author—inspiring a fable she reads on a tour of some familiar-seeming West Coast bookstores—and then a vagrant who can see inside strangers' minds and read them like close third-person narration, The Illumination seems to explain the gift of empathy it passes along to the reader. An aching act of omniscience, Brockmeier's writing regarding the pain of others constitutes some of the most beautiful figurative language in recent memory, "dislocated shoulders like the torchlit rooms of ancient houses."