Another book of short stories..this summer has been plagued by short story collections that I don't realize are short stories until I start reading them. In my defense I would like to point out that the title of this book is actual "The Illumination: A Novel." BUT IT IS NOT!
This was a collection of stories following a journal of love notes after an event (called the Illumination) which turned pain into visible streams of light. I really enjoyed the first story; I liked the premise and the character and was interesting. When the second chapter opened and I realized that I had followed the notebook and it was a different story I was disappointed (both because of my less than fond feelings toward short story collections and because I did not like the new characters nearly as much as I liked those in the first story). The idea here is that this is a collection of stories about love and loss and pain and while the idea of emotional pain being equivalent to physical pain (and also emitting a certain type of light) is briefly addressed, the bulk of the collection deals with physical pain. I have notes on each of the six stories below.
Carol Ann Page: My favorite story in the collection. I found Carol Ann believable, interesting and sympathetic. We first encounter the Illimination here and I really liked the social difficulties that it presented for Carol Ann: "They all tried their best not to acknowledge one another's suffering." Certainly this theme was brought up again later in the Nina Poggione story; when pain becomes visible it is harder to pretend that one is okay; it is harder not to offer assistance. I also liked the description of unlooked-for happiness; that rare feeling that we all (if we are lucky) stumble upon for no great reason upon occasion: "Sometimes they rose up inside her, these moments of fierce happiness, kindling out of their own substanace liek a spark igniting a mound of grass. It was a joy to be alive, a strange and savage joy, and she stood there in the warmth and destruction of it knowing it could not last." coupled with the wish to avoid unpleasantness: "This is not really happening, and also In an hour this will already have happened."
Jason Williford: Jason is the author of the love notes. He retrieves them from Carol Ann after finding out that his wife accidentally gave them to Carol Ann before she died because she thought that Jason had already died. He essentially is the walking dead, and in fact was dead for a moment after the car accident but was revived. He is simply the sap that cannot move on: "It was his gift to Patricia, his tribute--to create the kind of life he would be willing to burn to ashes." In his grief and his guilt he becomes a sadist who enjoys nothing as much as self mutilation.
Chuck Carter: The kid down the block who is odd and feels sympathetic towards objects. He steals the notebook from Jason because he believes that it has not been treated well. Brockmeier is quick to tell us that Chuck is not mentally deficient, he is just a little odd, but he does come across as slightly autistic and possibly deranged. Morse (later) is also not completely mentally there. I find it odd that Brockmeier gives these two characters "special" powers: Chuck the ability sense objects emotional states and Morse the ability to read other people's minds. Chuck is pretty easy going until Todd (the school bully) tears the journal and then he feels the need to retaliate.
Ryan Shifrin: The door-to-door Christian missionary who inherits the notebook from Chuck. In his remorse for not better protecting the notebook, Chuck gives it to Ryan one day. I found this story to be the least interesting and the one that did not mesh as well with the others. We follow Ryan through 4 decades of missionary work and see all the close calls and have to weed through a bunch of prostelysizing to eventually have him leave the book in a hotel room. Ultimately I was not very interested in this story.
Nina Poggione: Nina finds the notebook in a hotel room drawer and then incorporates the love notes in her next book of short stories. And so, we have a story within a story because we get to "hear" her read the story out loud at book signings. I found Nina to be a sympathetic character, but her pain was annoying. I thought that this would have been a good opportunity for Brockmeier to dwell more on emotional (rather than physical) pain, but he did not. The sci-fi story the used the love notes was interesting, but ultimately not relevant to the love-loss/pain theme of the main stories.
Morse Putnam Strawbridge: Finally, Nina's son swaps the notebook with a homeless (and again slightly mentally deficient) book street-vendor who ultimately loses it when some thugs beat him up. Morse was an interesting character because he had this telepathic ability: "He did not love anyone, he only understood them, and who in this world would choose understanding over love?", but the story about him did not really go anywhere.
Overall it was just a collection of stories. I think it could have been done better as a longer work encompassing one of these characters and building on the premise of the Illumination (which was not really addressed at all other than "hey it's strange that this is happening."). Slight entertaining, but nothing really special.