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The Illumination Reader’s Guide

By Kevin Brockmeier

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier


“Some writers show us the world we live in.  Brockmeier shows us, instead, the one we might live in if only we had a little more imagination.” —Los Angeles Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Illumination. This novel, marked by the stunning artistry and imagination we have come to expect from best-selling and award-winning author Kevin Brockmeier, examines the wounds we all bear and the light that radiates from us all.


What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?
At 8:17 on a Friday night, the Illumination commences. Every wound begins to shine, every bruise to glow and shimmer. And in the aftermath of a fatal car accident, a private journal of love notes, written by a husband to his wife, passes into the keeping of a hospital patient and from there through the hands of five other suffering people, touching each of them uniquely.

The six recipients—a data analyst, a photojournalist, a schoolchild, a missionary, a writer, and a street vendor—inhabit an acutely observed, familiar-yet-strange universe, as only Kevin Brockmeier could imagine it: a world in which human pain is expressed as illumination, so that one’s wounds blaze with light.  As we follow the path of the journal from stranger to stranger, we come to understand how they are all connected in the human pain and experience.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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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About this Author

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and he has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has received the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. Recently he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.

Suggested Reading

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead; Christopher Coake, We’re in Trouble; David Eagleman, Sum; Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go; Jose Saramago, Blindness; Kevin Wilson, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories; Tobias Wolff, The Night in Question
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