Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Literature and Its Limits

The book above is one of the smash hits of American literature from 2014.  Written by Anthony Doerr, it is the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier talented in radio communications.  At its climax, they meet briefly as the Allies bomb the historic port town of Saint-Malo in Brittany during World War II.

By the end of last November, the book had sold almost 300,000 hardback and 340,000 digital copies.  It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was cited on virtually every top-10 fiction list for the year.  This week it won the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

I wish I could say that I liked it better.

Let me quote from some reviews written by novelists, people who have more experience in the fiction game than I do:

     "I'm not sure I will read a better novel this year . . . .  Enthrallingly told, beautifully 
     written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears, it is completely
     unsentimental -- no mean trick when you consider that Doerr's two protagonists
     are children who have been engulfed in the horror of World War II.  Not martyred
     emblems, like Ann Frank . . . just ordinary children, two of thousands swallowed up
     in a conflict they had nothing to do with."  

     "The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humor-free tone that could
     be cheesy in the wrong hands.  Doerr's novel is ambitious and majestic without
     bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak -- which is not to say that it will not jerk
     those tears right out of your head."

In fact, the book is beautifully written, which is a good thing because it is a real door-stopper at more than 500 pages.  

One of my reservations is the way the story is laid out -- in short two- to four-page chapters that jump around between locations and back and forth across years.  

I suspect that the author made a calculated decision to employ such a structure.  Maybe he worried that people would not stick with the book if it were laid out in traditional chronological fashion.  Maybe he solved the problem by constantly raising story questions --  What now?  How did she get there?  What happened to the boy we just read about? -- in the hope of holding people's attention to the 530th page. 

(For those who do not prefer long books, three ancillary products are now available:  A "Summary and Analysis," a "30-Minute Summary" and something called "Sidekick," "an independent companion . . . meant to enhance your experience of the novel.") 

My second reservation is that I disagree with the reviewers who assert that the book is not sentimental.  

Consider the manipulative way the characters have been drawn:   A blind girl whose mother is dead and whose father is captured and imprisoned.  A desperately poor orphan whose radio skills draw him into a ghastly Nazi youth training camp.  The orphan's only friend, who is set upon, cruelly and repeatedly, by other campmates.  The girl's great uncle, shell-shocked and housebound since the end of WWI. A Javert-like German officer, ill and near death, spending his last weeks searching for a valuable bauble that may be in the blind girl's home. 

Put it this way:  The book gives us a collection of people, all suffering, and a world war becomes the background for a story the author tells about them.  

That may be harsh, but it's definitely one way to look at All the Light We Cannot See.

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