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 of the city. Their lives are full of hurt, which, you'd think, would make them fertile ground on which to consider the question, How would our lives change if we could see one another's pain?
The surprising thing is how little difference the Illumination (as the mysterious phenomenon comes to be known) makes in Brockmeier's novel. The data analyst's wounded hand earns her the sympathy of a kindly doctor, but the light that shines from her desperate heart doesn't win the doctor's forgiveness when he discovers that she has the dead woman's journal. No one takes pity on the bullied kid because his bruises glow—nor does their light stop him from getting revenge when he has the chance. The bereaved photojournalist strikes pay dirt when he finds a group of self-mutilating teenagers: "The glowing lines and tiny luminescent planets on their skin resembled the pits and notches carved into the bus bench. His gaze was drawn to their deliberate, almost sculptural quality. He found it hard to look away." But when has a photojournalist ever been able to turn away from a well-framed wound? The farther you read into Brockmeier's novel, the more the what-if of his premise comes to sound like an even-if. The beautiful light spilling from people's bodies only emphasizes what many of us already believe: that we find other people's suffering fascinating, but not so fascinating that we'll do anything about it.
This is a plausible thesis, but in the context of The Illumination it disappoints. First, it seems to me that Brockmeier is refusing himself the great pleasure of speculative fiction, the working out in detail of a counterfactual premise. Brockmeier is a gifted explorer of conjectures: His novel The Brief History of the Dead (2006) used a mythological notion—that the dead exist as long as the living remember them—to tell a chilling and weirdly moving story about an earthly apocalypse. The Illumination is an equally enticing conceit, but Brockmeier does less with it. In the world of the novel, hospital triage is easier because patients can be sorted by their luminosity; the etiquette of asking about people's pain has to be sorted out, and that's about it.
Brockmeier's reluctance to push his concept to its limit might seem to be in the service of realism, but it ends up diminishing the novel's reality. This is the age of identity theft and body scans; we're already thoroughly anxious about our privacy. Wouldn't the vivid exposure of every hidden hurt be more deeply and broadly consequential?
More important, the scarcity of empathy in the novel leaves the characters stranded within their pain in a way that makes it hard for us to feel for them. When Ryan, the missionary, meets a girl whose whole skeleton is illuminated by disease, you expect that some revelation is at hand, a window into the life of another being—but no. "For the rest of his life, every time he saw a skeleton chandeliering its way down a stand in a biology classroom, he would think of the girl whose bones fluoresced with pain. He never did find out what was wrong with her." The girl doesn't even make Ryan sympathetic to living people, but to skeletons, which is odd: How many biology classes does a missionary attend?
It's almost as if, paradoxically, the Illumination has blinded Brockmeier's characters to one another. Which is, of course, what pain does, but it doesn't feel like enough for a novel to participate in that truth without finding the power to reflect on it. Maybe the moral of this story is: If we want to know the pain of others, we'd be better off not seeing the beetles in their boxes. Then we'd have to rely on what speculative fiction itself requires: our imaginations.
Paul La Farge is the author of three books of fiction. His novel Luminous Airplanes will be published by FSG in the fall.