A soft-hearted spiritual parable that aims for beguiling but succumbs to cloying.
The author's first novel since The Brief History of the Dead (2006) is another vaguely futuristic fable with meditations on mortality, which explore the beauty and redemption in suffering. The title refers to an inexplicable phenomenon that might have lasted for decades or forever. One day, peoples' injuries start glowing or even blazing with light. And not only their physical injuries but their emotional wounds as well. And not just humans but even inanimate objects. ("Jars of peanut butter could be hurt just like people.") A surgeon in the operating room shouts, "Sunglasses! I need some sunglasses here!" However imaginative the reader finds that vision, the plot pivots on an oft-used convention: the object that passes from one stranger to the next and transforms their lives. The object in this case is a book of one-sentence love notes from a husband to his wife, which starts changing hands in the hospital, after she dies from an auto accident that leaves him physically and emotionally debilitated. First claimed by a divorced woman who had shared a hospital room with the wife, and who thought the husband had also died, it then passes back to him, as he attempts to return to some semblance of normal life through his job as a newspaper photographer. Plainly the "The Illumination," as the phenomenon has quickly been dubbed, is a photographic boon, with the photographer wrestling with his conscience over whether he's exploiting those who mutilate themselves just to see the light or simply capturing those images (until he himself succumbs to the temptation of self-inflicted wounds). Others who briefly obtain possession of the book range from "a crazy little retard"—a silent boy, likely autistic—to a female author of fables and parables (like this one?) whose mouth ulcer makes the readings she gives a painful experience.
More illumination than revelation.
Read an Excerpt
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.
From the Hardcover edition.