just trying to keep score.

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brockmeier continued

“And it seemed to Ryan that He viewed their bodies as a doctor would — so many sorry aging structures of blood and tissue, each displaying its own particular debility. Their wounds were majestic to Him, their tumors and lacerations. And perhaps it had always been that way. Perhaps the light He had brought to their injuries, or allowed the world to bring, was simply a new kind of ornamentation. The jewelry with which He decorated His lovers. The oil with which He anointed His sons.”

And I think this is a very interesting point in an excellent book — but also the point at which the book breaks down. Because there’s a little much going on: it’s a book with a half-dozen narrators, who pass the story from one to the next (and then disappear, or are just briefly glimpsed in the subsequent narrator’s eye at handoff), a broad unexplained conceit in the Illumination, and a McGuffin that gets exchanged in the form of a dead character’s diary.

But here, at this point, Brockmeier reaches a climax. Ryan lives a life of faith without having faith, does good without the love or fear of God, so can speculate about a God who values pain for its aesthetics. And Brockmeier gives him a fitting story, one which tapers out over a long life; in doing this, though, he passes the McGuffin early and invisibly (breaking the plot of the novel-of-exchange) and he extends the narrator’s story far beyond where we see any change in the conceit, any movement in other people. The story that follows, compact and mythic, is at least as good, in an entirely different way — but this is when Brockmeier casts off the scaffolding holding this book together, and abandons its structure to one of successive short stories.

February 22, 2011, 2:07pm   Comments

brockmeier continued

“Chuck skimmed a news magazine he found on the table. Someone, a Chinese soldier, had been shot in the head. Light was gushing from his temple in a sideways fountain. Some children were starving, their stomachs glistening like crystal balls. Their pain had made them simple, honest, candid, like objects.”

One of the excellent things that Brockmeier does with his conceit comes from its development over time in the book: the Illumination is at first an amazement, and then an enticement to good, but very quickly leads to awkwardness or embarrassment, forced indifference and artificial etiquette, ultimately making people into objects defined by their pain. This is not what Chuck sees here, necessarily — he’s got a closer sympathy with objects than with people, really — but Brockmeier so clearly renders the internalized not-seeing that manners depends upon.

February 19, 2011, 9:20am   Comments

brockmeier continued

“In the days that followed, Melissa guided him into greater and more pleasurable forms of injury, assisting him through each procedure step-by-step. She plucked the hairs from his stomach with a pair of tweezers, patiently and deliberately, so that each one generated a ring-shaped lambent spot that spread open and disappeared like a raindrop striking a puddle.”

Arguably one of the few permissible uses of the word ‘lambent,’ in an image that’s both lucid and a little gross.

February 18, 2011, 1:50pm   Comments

kevin brockmeier, the illumination

“Before the chorus took hold, he was overcome with a sense of dread and had to press the STOP button. He shook his head involuntarily, like a dog throwing off crests of water. He sat down on the stationary bicycle. He had known the song for twenty years, longer than he had known Patricia, longer than he had known how to drive or write a check. Its meaning in his life ought to have been incorruptible. It was about his own mind when he was thirteen, the endless afternoons he spent lying on the carpet with his headphones on, the yard work he needed to finish and the girlfriends he wished he had, the innocent freedom and sadness of it all, but now somehow it had become blighted with the knowledge that Patricia had been listening to it the day of the accident, or the day before, or she had been preparing to listen to it the day after. Every note was a note she knew by heart, every word a word she used to sing.”

It’s almost (but not quite) immaterial that the song is REM’s “You Are the Everything,” which doesn’t get specifically named in the passage, but instead just has its first couple of lines related. Because this is an excellent description of a moment, one of those points where something familiar and known becomes something treacherous and unknown. And because for this reader in particular those opening couplets are immediately identifiable, about my own mind when I was fourteen.

Pantheon 02.01.11

February 17, 2011, 11:54am   Comments