Kevin Brockmeier is easy to spot. He enters the café wearing a long overcoat, wire-rimmed glasses round as compasses and the subtlest look of unease. It’s harder, however, to pin him down.
Brockmeier’s reedy voice, which sounds strikingly like David Sedaris’ (without the sardonic edge), almost gets lost in the din of this bustling Little Rock bakery. After easing into a corner by the kitchen, hazelnut latte in hand, Brockmeier eyes the digital recording device on the table. (He prefers being interviewed via email.) But soon enough the conversation takes on a life of its own, ranging from the pedestrian to the profound.
In his brilliant, curious new novel, The Illumination, Brockmeier poses a weighty question: “What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?” He explores this query in all its complexity through six novella-length chapters, linked by a private journal of love notes written by a husband to his wife. But first, the phenomenon occurs.
What people call “The Illumination” spontaneously begins at 8:17 on a Friday night, causing everyone’s wounds to shine. Everywhere, people in psychic or physical distress start to phosphoresce, to glow. In the aftermath of a car accident, the aforementioned journal of love notes passes into the care of a hospital patient and from there through the hands of five others, touching each of them in different ways. The six recipients—a data analyst and divorcée, a photojournalist, a young boy, an evangelist, a novelist and a homeless man—inhabit a world that feels at once bizarre and familiar, a world in which human pain manifests as light.
The journal entries interspersed throughout the book are by turns tender and playful, revealing the intimacies of a happy marriage. “I love watching TV and shelling sunflower seeds with you,” one note reads. “I love how easily you cry when you’re happy. . . . I love the soft blue veins on your wrist.” Brockmeier’s hope is that the notes come together to create a composite picture of one couple’s life together, and they do. “When I was working on the novel, that was how I began each day as a way of re-immersing myself in the world I was trying to create,” he recalls.
Asked about the genesis of the novel, the author points to the missionary’s monologue in the fourth chapter of the book, a section he references frequently during our conversation. “When Ryan [the missionary] is talking about human suffering, the question of it and the value of it, he considers that maybe it’s our suffering that makes us beautiful to God, and if so, what does that imply . . . and also if so, how dare he,” Brockmeier says. “I was thinking about those things, about what value [suffering] could possibly have, and I had this image of an injury shedding light. What if that was the way God saw the world—that your pain sets you aglow—and the image seemed meaningful to me, and it slowly gave rise to a novel.”
In addition to his novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky andThe View from the Seventh Layer, Brockmeier has also written two children’s books, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. It’s not surprising that his imaginative blend of literary fiction and fantasy also appeals to young readers.
Growing up in Little Rock, Brockmeier attended Christian schools, which partly accounts for his familiarity with the Bible and his interest in theology, specifically the works of G.K. Chesterton and Simone Weil (an epigraph from her writings introduces one of the chapters in The Illumination).
His upbringing, of course, informs his writing, but his interests are wide and varied. To call him an avid reader would be a gross understatement; he’s voracious, a student of all things. “I’m an explorer. I try to find writing that excites me,” he says. Right now what excites him is an obscure slender novel, The Private Life of Trees, by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. From a soft leather briefcase, the meticulous Brockmeier produces a series of lists. (He admits to being a prolific, slightly obsessive list maker by nature.) “It’s how my mind works,” he explains. He offers up his 50 Favorite Books, followed by 50 Favorite Stories, Movies . . . Albums . . . Children’s Books. And still there are others, all of which give insight into this somewhat elusive author.
After discussing his favorites for a time, talk gradually returns to Brockmeier’s latest novel, which deserves its own place on a “Top 50” list somewhere. Asked whether the purpose of this phenomenon, the Illumination, is to awaken compassion in all beings, Brockmeier pauses for a moment before responding. “Ultimately, just because you’re granted a clearer vision of the suffering that’s around you, doesn’t necessarily make the world a better place,” he says.
The cacophony of the bakery’s kitchen swells as the weight of this bleak conclusion settles over the table. But what if, like heat lightning, the small flickers of awareness that occur in each individual character ultimately raise the consciousness of humanity as a whole? A silence ensues before Brockmeier answers, with great deliberation. “It doesn’t seem to change the systems of the world—it changes individual souls,” he says. “And I don’t know whether that’s a pessimistic or a cynical way of imagining the way this phenomenon would unfold or whether it’s a realistic one.” The inherent question hovers unanswered in the air between us. “There’s so much pain in the world and so much beauty in the world and they’re so intertwined. How do you tease them apart and can you tease them apart?”
The novel illuminates this paradox without resolving it. The book does suggest, however, that the light offers a new way of seeing and relating to others through shared pain.
“There’s something very compelling about that,” Brockmeier says. “While I was writing the book, I felt as though I was reorienting my own way of looking at the world. It’s not as if I was walking around seeing light emerging from people, but I felt as if I was training my mind to be ready to see the world that way. And occasionally I was dreaming that I saw the world that way.
“I think the best books change the way you see the world while you’re reading them,” he adds.
The Illumination is one of those books. In it, Brockmeier reveals the interconnectedness of his characters’ lives and moments of crystalline compassion, and chronicles their suffering in prose sometimes so startlingly beautiful you have to look at it indirectly, like the sun.