Reading Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination has been an interesting experience for me because I didn’t much like it, and when I took a look at some reviews, I found a bunch of glowing ones and a couple that were negative, so opinion seems to be inconsistent but mostly positive. I didn’t, however, do a very thorough survey, so I don’t really know. But it’s interesting to me to read glowing reviews of a book I didn’t like; it doesn’t make me doubt my feelings about the book, but it does make me wonder … what was going on in other people’s heads. Not that I doubt their experience, either; I just wonder, as I often do, about this whole business of reviewing. Does anybody really know what makes a good book or a bad book?
Anyway, the book is really more a series of linked stories than it is a novel. The are six stories, each with a different main character, and they are united by two things; the first is a book full of love notes from a husband to his wife that gets passed from character to character. We meet the wife in the hospital just as she is about to die from a car crash. In a gesture of sadness and defeat, just before her death she passes the book on to the woman with whom she shares a hospital room. The book contains copies of daily notes the husband had left telling his wife something that he loved about her:
I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric.
There are pages and pages of these notes, and together they tell the story of a marriage. The book travels from character to character, getting stained and ripped and losing pages along the way. The book means different things to the various characters, but it makes them all think about what it means to love another person.
The other unifying factor in the book is that all the sudden for no reason anyone knows of, pain becomes visible as light, hence “the illumination.” It’s now possible to see when someone is ill, or if they are suffering from arthritis or kidney stones or scrapes and bruises. The more severe the pain, the brighter the light. This makes a simple walk down the street an entirely different experience. Now, you’re confronted with pain at practically every moment; you can see just how much everyone is suffering, how common it is to live with pain. No one can hide illnesses anymore; your cancer is immediately obvious, as is your migraine.
Brockmeier’s characters are all very different types: there is an author, a young boy who is troubled and refuses to talk, an evangelical missionary, a homeless man, and a photographer. (The illumination is a boon for professional photographers: imagine the amazing photos you could take if people’s pain were visible.) The range of characters and situations is impressive.
In spite of all these interesting things going on, however, I never connected with the book. Perhaps there is simply too much going on. It remained an intellectual exercise for me, and the intellectual exercise wasn’t a particularly satisfying one. Brockmeier is exploring the meaning of pain and suffering, and the narrative occasionally stops to ponder such questions as how pain changes us and what suffering does to our faith in God. I didn’t find that this questioning led anywhere, though, or added up to much.
It would have helped to know in advance that this was basically a collection of linked stories rather than a more traditional novel (generally I prefer not to know much about a book I’m going to read, so I avoid it when I can, but this is an exception — it’s good to know whether you’re going to get a traditional narrative arc or not). But I’m not sure I would have liked it that much more if I had known; there was something a little lifeless and dry about the book that made me reluctant to pick it up again.
But other readers have thought this book is wonderful, so it’s possible that you will too.
11 responses to “The Illumination”
I find it fascinating when people have such different reactions to a book, especially when people I like and respect love a book I don’t, or dislike a book I love. It does make me wonder how anyone can define a good book, and yet I do think that books can be well written, inventive, persuasive and not. We just don’t all agree on it.
I just heard a review of this on NPR the other morning, and I’ll admit I’m intrigued. I’m becoming more and more of a fan of interlinked stories, so much so that I’ve even taken to reading books that aren’t written that way as if they were just stories. (It’s helping me tremendously when dealing with the huge cast of characters in The Children’s Book.)
I agree, though, that it’s difficult (or perhaps impossible) to judge what is and is not a good book. It’s one of the reasons that I think literary criticism simply cannot be totally subjective. I suppose if something’s really bad, it’s obvious, but most books fall in the murky middle where personal taste comes into play.
I felt the same bemusement on reading glowing review after glowing review of Let the Great World Spin last year – amazing that I could have such an opposite reaction to a book so many seemed to find awe-inspiring, even life-changing. It really does point out how subjective literary quality can be. Even if there’s a tiny part of me that flat-out believes I’m right and everyone else is wrong. 🙂
Saturday’s edition of The Guardian newspaper always has a column looking at the different receptions a book has got from the critics and it’s often extremely enlightening, especially given the fact that the publicists are only going to pull out the positive comments. I’m afraid the pragmatist in me came out to play when you started to write about the illumination of the pain. Presumably no one would have incurable cancers any more because they would all be spotted when they were in their pinprick of light stage and be whipped out before they could do any real damage? I was never meant to be a magical realism reader, I’m afraid.
This sounds as if it has some very intriguing ideas, but my sense is that it could become pretentious. Too much thought and not enough heart and the whole exercise is sterile. Your thoughts about reviews makes me think of wine buffs – apparently the most expensive wine is the kind that few people will really drink for pleasure. They are considered ‘difficult’ wines and a palette has to be cultivated in order to appreciate them. I think this is possibly another way of saying they taste horrid! But sometimes I think book reviewers are the same – they read so many books that, without perhaps realising it, they are looking for something specific and very different. So if a book is unusual, they might praise it more than a better written book on a more orthodox topic. Well I don’t know, just a thought.
I think a book like this could be interesting if properly executed. Based on your review (and your comment “It remained an intellectual exercise for me, and the intellectual exercise wasn’t a particularly satisfying one. ” in particular) it seems like this just wasn’t as well-done as it could have been. Readers have different tastes. I guess you could say that you have a taste for a “well-done” book while others might prefer “medium-rare”.
Okay, that analogy tanked. My point is: seems like an interesting concept but every reader will probably connect differently with the actual execution. To me it seems a little too kitschy – even though I also find the method of presenting the story intriguingly different. Contradictions galore! Can I just second what Litlove said?
Thanks for such a thorough and thoughtful rundown of your reaction to this book. I have a copy of it and am really intrigued by its premise… that said, I haven’t really read or heard much about the book, so I don’t have any specific expectations going in. I find that has been the catch-22 of book blogging: when you hear so much about certain books, you build them up in your mind and may inadvertently wall yourself off to what the story is really trying to do!
Sounds like it had such potential, too bad it didn’t work for you. I had to laugh at your wondering what went on in other people’s heads. I find myself wondering that too especially when it comes to books I really didn’t like.
I like the idea of interlinked stories, but I’m not sure the premise of the book would appeal to me very much. If I feel like I can’t connect with the characters something else about the story really needs to draw me in. It is weird how some books can be both loved and hated by readers–I was also thinking recently how hard it can be to be subjective about what is a “good book”. Sometimes it’s possible to not necessarily like a book but appreciate it for other reasons, but this one seemed to be disappointing all around.
Lilian — I agree with you that it’s possible to make judgments and that books can be well-written and not. I suppose there are some relatively clear-cut examples of what’s good and what’s not (we almost all agree on Shakespeare, for example), but with many, many books, especially recent ones, it’s not clear-cut at all.
Teresa — I’ve read collections of linked stories that I liked very much, especially Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. It helped that I knew what I was getting into — and also that the main character kept reappearing, even if she wasn’t in the center of things. Maybe it’s more effective to have a character return in each story rather than the book that Brockmeier uses. Anyway, if you do read this, I’d love to know what you think.
Emily — it’s definitely hard to imagine how one’s own opinion could possibly be wrong 🙂 For me that’s true in most cases, but sometimes I can see that a book may be good, just not for me. With some books it’s easier to understand how others might like it. I can understand in an abstract kind of way how people are enjoying the Brockmeier book — but I have to work at it a bit!
Annie — the concept of the illumination does bring up some questions about how it all would work. Brockmeier explores those questions a little bit, although he could have done more. Nobody, for example, now has to describe to a doctor how much pain they are in — the doctor can just see it. But other things like treating cancers before they develop — Brockmeier doesn’t touch on that.
Litlove — it’s interesting to think about how the practice of regular reviewing might change the kinds of books a person likes and reviews well. That’s kind of a disturbing thought, actually, because what does that say about reviews! Anyway, I didn’t feel much heart in the book; it seemed like Brockmeier was trying to make it emotionally powerful, but it didn’t work for me, at least. Your comment about wine makes me laugh — a “difficult” wine is a little like a difficult book, such as Ulysses, something most people don’t actually want to read?
Biblibio — I like your contradictions! 🙂 I think the concept is potentially interesting, but probably too ambitious. It’s surely very hard to bring together all the elements Brockmeier is working with. I wouldn’t have minded the concepts at all, if I felt I had connected emotionally with the book.
Steph — it’s not always a good thing to know too much about the books you are about to read! I try to avoid setting up certain expectations and so I often skim or skip reviews and posts on a book I plan to read. I’m very curious what you will make of this one!
Stefanie — potential, yes, and I suppose for other people it lived up to its potential. But I found myself bored and unwilling to pick up the book while in the middle of it — a bad sign! And sometimes I think it’s better not to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind 🙂
Danielle — that’s exactly it — if I don’t connect with the characters, I need something else. I didn’t really connect with the characters here (I liked some of them, but … there was some magic missing or something), and the ideas and concepts didn’t make up for that lack. I know what you mean about appreciating a book you don’t necessarily like; I’ve definitely felt that way before. But not here!
I have often wondered about what makes a book “good” or “bad” to the various reviewers and critics, and perhaps I am jaded, but I think politics and personal taste must enter the picture more than often than not. There are so many talented writers out there who cannot get a book contract, because as unique and well-written as their book might be, if it does not appear that it will “sell,” editors will not touch it. Of course, there are some terrible, or plain old “not great,” books that are published because they speak to some societal trend or a publisher’s preference. Of course this is all obvious…what I mean to say is that in this case, the idea of pain illuminating from the body may be so appealing to the many readers that experience pain of some sort, that it was thought it could make up for a less-than-exciting execution. Personally, the idea of the book of love notes being passed from person to person sounded interesting enough to me, without the other aspects.