Monday, June 23, 2014

What We're Reading: Prizewinning New Fiction

Anthony Doerr is a celebrated young author, the winner of four O. Henry Prizes, three Pushcart Prizes, The Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions of Fiction Award, the National Magazine Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize.  He has been working on All the Light We Cannot See for the last 10 years--his most ambitious work to date.  The book is making its way up the New York Times Bestseller List, but what got me to read it was a recent survey that shows it is currently a favorite among librarians.  Critics have written that the novel has the “physical and emotional heft of a masterpiece,” that it is “hauntingly beautiful,”  “at once spacious and tightly composed,” and that it has the feel of an epic.  And indeed, All the Light We Cannot See is a luminous, lyrical, and moving book.
This novel is set primarily in the Breton city of Saint-Malo during 1944, towards the end of World War II. The town is still occupied by the Germans as they fend off the advance of Allied forces, and the climactic and suspenseful action of the novel occurs as the city is under aerial bombardment. The book has two major characters whose isolated stories build throughout the novel until their paths finally cross in a brief but portentous encounter in Saint-Malo.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old who, after the Nazis' occupation of Paris, has fled with her father to Saint-Malo and taken refuge at the home of her father’s uncle. Early in the occupation, Marie Laure’s father is summoned back to Paris by his employer, the Museum of Natural History, in what turns out to be a ruse by the Nazis, who imprison him as a suspected member of the French resistance.  Marie’s war years are spent with her agoraphobic uncle and his housekeeper, who do, in fact, become involved, along with Marie, in the French resistance movement, using her uncle’s hidden radio transmitter to convey coded information to resistance forces. 
The other major character in All the Light We Cannot See is Werner Pfennig, an 18-year-old German orphan from the mining town of Essen.  It is his expected fate that Werner will end up working in the mines at a young age, but early in his youth Werner finds an abandoned crystal radio set that he is able to repair, and becomes interested in the scientific mysteries of the world.  Werner is an autodidact who displays signs of a precocious genius.  His technology skills come to the attention of a local officer, who arranges for him to attend a special Nazi youth school at which he works with one of his professors to develop a radio triangulation system that will help the military pinpoint the location of enemy transmitters.  Werner is inducted into the Wehrmacht, where he is assigned to a detail that hunts down enemy transmitters and kills the soldiers and resistance fighters who are operating that equipment. Avoiding the drudgery and dire fate of a mineworker, his ticket out of Essen and the promise of a career of scientific discovery comes at the cost of his participation in a culture of brutality and war. The moral choices confronting Werner are an important theme of the novel.  Werner is the character in the novel who undergoes a profound change, and he is the character in whose fate we become most emotionally invested.
The choice of historical setting can sometimes seem arbitrary and whimsical in a novel, but Doerr’s setting of his book in the years of World War II seems essential to what he wants to say about the themes he explores. The Manichaean landscape of physical violence and moral evil, so complete and relentless, is one that seems to close out the world of goodness, spirit and light; but it is at the greatest and most seemingly hopeless imbalance of this fundamental dualism, in the hour of greatest darkness, when the world of light seeps through. We become aware of the existence of all the metaphorical light we cannot see. That light is something more than just hope; it is the evidence and embodiment of an opposing force that is redeeming, of a goodness that is substantive and transcendent. The conflict of light and darkness is the major image and allegory of this book, and Doerr effectively employs that imagery through a remarkable range of symbolic contrasts, parallels and variations. 
There are some readers of fiction who want to be astonished by what an author has done. For fear of breaking the spell, they do not want to know how it was done or how they were brought along, how meaning was created or emotions were elicited--they’re content with the magic of the making. I am not one of those readers. This is a novel perhaps for those of us with a bit of a deconstructionist bent, those of us who like books in which the author lets us see what he is doing, where we are witness to the exhibit of mastery rather than content to rest in the sensation of magic. I want to be conscious of how the tools and conventions of fiction writing are being employed by an author as I read, to watch not only the story unfold but to see the scaffolding with which the plot was constructed. There is a considered intricacy and elegance in the handling of these things by Doerr. He lets us see him using these tropes and tools to create meaning as he tells us why the story is being told. In the hands of a lesser writer we might find turns of the plot improbable coincidences, but in Doerr’s hands they become correspondences and metaphysical connections that reveal to us a world that is more expansive and wondrous than we would have imagined, one that contains the goodness of which we despair as lost in a time of darkness, a world that is filled with all the light we cannot see.       

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