It was Friday evening, half an hour before the light struck, and she was attempting to open a package with a carving knife. The package was from her ex-husband, who had covered it in a thick layer of transparent tape, the kind fretted with hundreds of white threads, the latest step in his long campaign of bringing needless difficulty to her life. She was sawing along the lid when she came to a particularly stubborn cross-piece of tape and turned the box toward herself to improve her grip. Her hand slipped, and just that quickly the knife severed the tip of her thumb. The hospital was not busy, and when she walked in carrying a balled-up mass of wet paper towels, her blood wicking through the pink flowers, the clerk at the reception desk admitted her right away. The doctor who came to examine her said, “Let’s take a look at what we’ve got here,” then gingerly, with his narrow fingers, unwound the paper from around her thumb. “Okay, this is totally doable. I don’t mind telling you you had me worried with all that blood of yours, but this doesn’t look so bad. A few stitches, and we should have you fixed right up.” She had not quite broken through the nail, though, and when he rotated her hand to take a closer look, a quarter-inch of her thumb came tilting away like the hinged cap of a lighter. The doctor gave an appreciative whistle, then took the pieces of her thumb and coupled them back together. She watched, horrified, as he fastened them in place with a white tag of surgical tape. “Miss? Miss?” The room had begun to flutter. He took her face in his hands. “What’s your name? Can you tell me your name, Miss? I’m Dr. Alstadt. Can you tell me your name?” His hands were warm and soft, like the hands of a fourteen-year-old boy deciding whether or not to kiss her, something she remembered feeling once, a long time ago, and she gave him her name, which was Carol Ann, Carol Ann Page. “Okay, Carol Ann, what we’re going to do is bring in the replantation team. They see this kind of thing all the time, so I don’t want you to worry. You hang in there, all right? Is there anyone we can call for you?”
“A husband? A parent?”
“No. Not in town.”
“All right then. It shouldn’t be longer than a few minutes. In the meantime, I’m going to give you something to ease the pain,” but instead he jotted a few sentences onto a clipboard and left the room. She lay back and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the doctor had been replaced by a nurse in dark green scrubs, who said, “You must be the thumb,” wiped the crook of her elbow with a cloth that smelled like chlorine bleach, and gave her a shot. The shot didn’t extinguish the pain so much as disguise it, make it beautiful, ease it, she supposed, just as the doctor had said it would. The nurse hurried out, and Carol Ann was alone again. A moment later, when she saw the light shining out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating. It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to her that the light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from the inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought that she could live there and be happy.
After the surgery, when she woke, her hand was encased in an odd little glove that immobilized her thumb but left her fingers free to open and close. Her neck was stiff, and her lips were dry, and in her mouth she detected the iron-and-butter taste of blood. At first she thought she was making a sort of mental clerical error, mistaking the aftereffects of thumb surgery for the aftereffects of dental surgery, but when she swept her tongue over her teeth, she brushed up against a pad of cotton batting. She pushed it out onto her palm. A pale glow flickered from somewhere and then went out. She remembered her dream of light and consolation, the sensation of peace and abundance that had come over her, and a voice saying, “This is really freaking me out. Isn’t this freaking anyone else out?” and a second voice saying, “We have a job to do, Clayton. Nothing here changes that fact,” and then the feeling of escape as she stared into the operating lamp and sleep pulled her under. She was thirsty now, but when she to tried to sit up in bed, a boy in mocha-colored scrubs appeared by her side and said, “Whoa, there. You’re still zonked out from the operation. What do you need? Let me get it for you.” She asked for something to drink, and he took a bottle of Evian from the tray beside her bed, twisted the cap off, and brought it to her lips, his hand performing a slow genuflection in the air as he tipped the water out. She drained nearly the whole bottle without once pausing for breath. When she was finished, he nodded, a short upward snap of the chin, impressed. “Is there anything else I can help you with? The doctor should be in to check on you soon.”
“My mouth. I cut my thumb—just my thumb—but when I woke up, I found all this . . . stuff in my mouth.” She was still holding the square of spit-soaked gauze she had discovered. When she opened her fingers to show it to him, he made a nest of his two good hands beneath her broken one so that she could dump it out. An image of her father came suddenly to mind: the sun was bright and the sky was clear and he was kneeling beside a stream in a state park, making a nest of his own good hands to give her a sip of water, and she paused and frowned, staring into the tiny pool he had created, transfixed by the way the light sent gray blooms of shadows gusting over his palms, and when she pointed it out to him, he laughed and called her his little Impressionist.
The orderly had taken her chart from the foot of the bed. “Says here you bit down on your cheek during the operation. Normally that doesn’t happen. Just sometimes if there’s an anesthesia problem you might wake up for a second and feel a little pain, and you’ll have what they call a bite response. A B.R.— that’s what this stands for.”
“Are you cold? I can turn the heat up if you want.”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Okey.” That was how he pronounced it. “I’ll be back in to check on you in a little while.”
She had spoken to him for only a few minutes, and she felt so weak, and he was no one who loved her, and when she propped herself up on her elbows to watch him go, her head swam with a thousand colors. She spent a while studying her room: the television pinned by a metal arm to the ceiling, the window looking out on a stand of pine trees, the empty bed, with its sheets in a dead calm. In the hallway, a man walked by wheeling an IV tower with a sack of clear fluid on one of its hooks, his stomach glimmering through his hospital gown. Then a woman stumbled past carrying a flashlight in her left hand. By the time Carol Ann thought to wonder why she was pointing her light down a corridor that was already so clearly illuminated, the woman had slipped out of view. Her arms were trembling from supporting herself, so she lay back down again. The bed’s side rails rattled as the mattress took her weight. The pillow rose up around her ears like bread. More and more she had the feeling that she was missing something.
It must have been another hour before the doctor who had first inspected her thumb, Dr. All-That-Blood-of-Yours, Dr. Alstadt, arrived and pulled a stool up to her bed. He sat down and asked her how she was feeling, then leaned in with his stethoscope. He was so close that her gaze was drawn to the smooth spot on his neck, a shape like Kentucky just above his Adam’s apple, where the stubble had failed to grow. He smelled like mouthwash, and he used her whole name when he spoke to her. “Well then, Carol Ann Page, let’s take a look at that hand of yours, shall we?” He undid the Velcro on her glove so that the material fell away like the peel of a banana, then unwrapped the bandage from around her thumb. Later she would find herself unable to remember which she noticed first: the quarter-inch of her nail that was missing, a straight line exposing the featureless topside of her thumb, or the way the light she thought she had hallucinated was still leaking out from around the wound.
“Your color is good,” Dr. Alstadt said. “Can you go like this for me?”
She flexed her thumb in imitation of his. A thrill of pain passed through her hand, and the light sharpened, flaring through the black x’s of her stitching.
“Range of motion good, too. It looks like we got to you before any major tissue damage set in. Let me wrap you back up, and you can get a little shut-eye.”
“Doctor, wait. What’s happening to me? Don’t you see this?”
He didn’t need to ask, See what? She noted it right away.
“I forget you’ve been sleeping all this time. Well, I don’t know much more than you do, I’m afraid. It started at eight-seventeen last night. That’s locally speaking, but this isn’t exactly local news. In fact, I bet if we . . . here.” He picked up the remote control and turned on the television. An episode of an old courtroom sitcom filled the screen, the one with the lecherous prosecutor and the hulking bailiff, but when he changed the station, Carol Ann saw footage of what looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Silver sparks appeared to swirl through the bodies of the traders like the static on a broken television. The doctor changed the station again, and she saw a child soldier with his arm in a sling and his shoulder ablaze with light. Then the president of the United States stepping into a helicopter, raising a hand glowing with arthritis at its joints. Then a pair of boxers opening up radiant cuts on each other’s faces. The images came one after another, so quickly that she barely had time to identify them. A woman in a blue burka, long pencils of light shining through the net of her veil. A team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing iridescent circles in the air. A girl with a luminous scrape on her arm, her face caught in an expression of inquisitive fear. When the news anchor addressed the camera, saying how from all around the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and the wounded, Carol Ann noticed his eyes narrowing and saw something like the flat pulse of heat lightning flashing from his temples. A phenomenon so new and unforeseen— the anchor winced almost imperceptibly as his forehead grew momentarily brighter—that scientists have not yet devised a name for it.
Dr. Alstadt had finished dressing her thumb. Gently, as though cradling a bird’s egg, he fit the glove back onto her hand. His voice came out tired and ragged. “Funny how quickly a person can get used to a miracle. Or how quickly a miracle can come to seem commonplace. If that’s what this is, a miracle.” He stopped, gave himself a derisory sniff, and for the first time since he had entered the room looked her directly in the eye. “See what I mean? ‘If that’s what this is.’ The problem is we’re in a hospital. Not exactly an environment conducive to quiet reflection. Well, Carol Ann Page,” he said, and he smacked his knees as he stood up. He told her he would be willing to discharge her that afternoon, but that the hospital would be more comfortable if she would consent to stay until Sunday morning so they could watch the area of the injury for any signs of tissue rejection.
Those were his exact words.
The hospital would be more comfortable.
The area of the injury.
When she agreed to remain overnight, he returned her hand to her stomach and said, “That’s my girl.” He muttered so softly that she wondered if he realized he had spoken. As he left the room she caught the briefest glimpse of the nape of his neck, where a hundred threads of light were twisting like algae in an underwater current.
Excerpted from The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier. Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Brockmeier. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In addition to his most recent work, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, KEVIN BROCKMEIER is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, and The Truth About Celia; the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer; and the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His work has been translated into seventeen languages. He has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has recieved the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. In 2007, he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists He teaches frequently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.
“Lush. . . . At once dark and profound. . . . [The Illumination] never fails to be deeply felt and precisely observed.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A beautiful novel. . . . Brockmeier is a dazzling stylist.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Stunningly original . . . this gorgeously written book will still stay with [readers] long after the last page is turned.” —The Oregonian
“Show[s] us the astonishment of life as it is really being lived.” —The Boston Globe
“Moving. . . . Skillfully explores the relationship between love and memory.” —The New Yorker
“The depth of [Brockmeier’s] scrutiny makes his fiction glow.” —The Plain Dealer
“Brockmeier’s characters are wonderful, and his images are dazzling.” —Detroit Free Press
“The Illumination imagines a real universe of pain and pleasure, connection and disconnection, and quest for meaning that defines human experience delightfully anew.” —The Miami Herald
“Brockmeier’s consistently arresting observations have the throb of lived—rather than merely imagined—experience. . . . In The Illumination it isn’t our agonies and discomforts that define us, but the selves we build in response to them.” —Salon
“Brockmeier’s work has always been characterized by his crystalline and surprising descriptions. . . . Brilliant. . . . Thorough and honest.” —Southern Literary Review
“Lyrical. . . . Both the quotidian warmth of the notebook and the increasingly incidental shimmer of physical suffering draw the characters—and us—into the complex and vivid consideration of some of the fundamental questions that come with being human.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[A] sunlit novel.” —Time Out Chicago
“Fresh and ingenious. . . . Brockmeier has one of those imaginations that churns out picture-perfect imagery.” —Elle
“Brockmeier’s book positively sparkles . . . We’ve never read anything like it.” —Daily Candy San Francisco
1. Does your understanding of the Illumination change throughout the novel? Why or why not? What do you think it is, and what causes it?
2. Discuss the structure of The Illumination. What is the effect of dividing the book into sections? With which characters did you most identify? Why?
3. How do the epigraphs that begin each section of The Illumination evolve throughout the book? Does the change in tone of the epigraphs reflect how the characters’ reactions to the Illumination change? And, your own? Why or why not?
4. The Carol Ann Page section begins with an epigraph that says, in part, “The light is worth the pain.” How does this relate to Carol Ann Page, and to the rest of the characters in The Illumination? Do you think that the Illumination makes the pain that each person experiences more endurable? Please explain.
5. According to the narrator, “The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination. No one could disguise his pain anymore [p. 33].” How does this influence Carol Ann Page’s interactions with others, particularly Dr. Alstadt? What other characters’ interactions are affected by the presence of the Illumination?
6. How does the journal help shape your understanding of Patricia and Jason Williford as a couple? Compare and contrast their relationship with the relationship that Carol Ann Page has with her ex-husband. Why do you think that Carol Ann decides to take the journal home from the hospital with her?
7. Jason comes to regret the last note that he left for Patricia before her death, which said, “I love the spaghetti patterns you leave on the wall [p. 50].” Why is he regretful? How does the meaning of this note change following her death?
8. In the aftermath of Jason’s accident, his “agony was nearly indistinguishable from bliss,” and while he originally does not court pain, “he did not shrink away from it, either [p. 48].” How and why does he begin to court pain? Does it help him deal with his grief over Patricia’s death? How or how not?
9. Who are the cutters? How does Jason meet them? Why do you think that Jason feels a certain kinship with them? What does he gain from his relationship with them, particularly Melissa? Why does he let her live with him? What do you think about his decision to do so?
10. Chuck believes that his duty is to be “the Superman of lifeless objects…They were simple, childlike, and they could not protect themselves [p. 93].” What in particular about the journal makes Chuck think that it needs rescuing? Why does he ultimately give the journal away?
11. Why does Chuck call his father his “Pretend Dad”? Discuss their relationship. How does Chuck’s relationship with his father affect other aspects of his life?
12. The narrator says that Judy Shifrin was “a Christian by constitution, whereas Ryan was merely a Christian by inertia [p. 133].” What does this statement mean? Does this affect Ryan’s missionary work? Or, do you think, as Ryan does that “evangelism was a job like so many others, where it did not matter what you believed, only what you did [p. 144]?” Please elaborate.
13. After Judy dies, the narrator says “And so the first part was over, and [Ryan] could begin teaching himself not to remember [p. 133].” How does Ryan deal with his grief over Judy’s death? Compare and contrast Ryan’s reaction to grief to that of Jason Williford. Does the Illumination help both men to cope with their losses? How?
14. Although Ryan encounters much suffering and sickness through his missionary work, he remains healthy throughout. How does this affect his faith? When Ryan fears God’s love is “merely decorative [p. 164],” what does he mean? How does the Illumination help illustrate this fear?
15. Nina Poggione finds her pain “shameful…appalling. She hated to exhibit it, hated the attention it brought her [p. 183].” Yet, when John Catau asks to see her ulcer, she obliges him. Why do you think she chooses to do so? What affect does the action have on their relationship? Do you, as the reader, learn anything more about her because of this action? What?
16. Describe Nina’s story “A Fable for the Living.” What is the effect of interspersing the story throughout the section about Nina? How does the emotional pain depicted in “A Fable for the Living” contrast with Nina’s physical pain?
17. At a reading, Nina tells an audience member that “with her first book she had seen the world as a narrative, seen human lives as narratives. Now, instead, she saw them as stories. She wasn’t sure what had happened [p. 205].” What does she mean by this statement? Based on the structure of The Illumination, how do you think that Kevin Brockmeier sees the world? How do you? Why?
18. One of Nina’s readers tells her “you write these stories about characters who have great sectors of what one would ordinarily regard as the common human experience entirely unavailable to them…they don’t seem to realize it, but they do [p. 212].” Do you think the same could be said of Kevin Brockmeier’s characters? Who in particular and why?
19. Who is Lee Hartz? Why do you think that the author waits until midway through Morse’s section to reveal his name? Why does Lee continue to visit Morse? How does his relationship with Morse evolve? Does your impression of him change as a result? In what ways?
20. In a description of Morse, the narrator says, “It was people—they were the problem [p 225].” In what way are people problematic for Morse? Is his relationship with Lee Hartz different? If so, how?
21. Why is Morse unable to part with the journal? What does he learn about himself in the process?
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