Paul La Farge
by Kevin Brockmeier
$24.95 List Price
Pain is private, and its privacy has long been a subject of interest to philosophers. Wittgenstein famously compared pain to a beetle in a box: "No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle." When we talk about pain, we have to take one another's word for it—that we are talking about the same thing, or indeed that we have beetles in our boxes at all. But what if there were a way to look into a stranger's box and actually see his suffering?
From this intriguing impossibility Kevin Brockmeier constructs his third novel for adults (he's also written two for children), The Illumination. Its premise is that, sometime around now, on a planet more or less like our own, pain (both mental and physical) becomes visible in the form of silvery light. All at once, everyone's wounds and illnesses are plain as day, even in-your-face. Broken bones sparkle, light pours from cuts, misery lights up dark rooms. Forget the beetle—what we're talking about is the transformation of suffering into beauty.
The novel is told from the points of view of six characters, each of whom briefly possesses a journal in which a now-dead female author has transcribed her husband's love notes to her. There's a data analyst, who has been gruesomely mutilated by her ex-husband's practical joke, and the dead woman's bereaved husband, a photojournalist. There's a bullied child, a missionary with a strange immunity to bodily harm, a writer with a permanently, poetically ulcerated mouth, and a homeless bookseller exposed to the semirandom violence