War and the Vulnerable Image: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

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One of the most disconcerting outcomes of our technology-saturated lifestyle is the rise of specialized knowledge. Any fact can be summoned from the servers of Wikipedia (located, interestingly enough, in Amsterdam), directed to your iPhone via satellite, and interjected into conversation at a moment’s notice. We are all specialized. My affinities are no longer affinities. They are now an archivist’s obsessions, with a level of detail and depth of field that would make any 20th century librarian proud.

So: What has this availability of information done to writers? Historical fiction, especially, has buckled beneath the weight of detail, as authors can now find not only the color of specific army uniforms — but also the fabric they were made out of, and the cities where the manufacturers made them (and the names of the manufacturers, probably) (and, if pressed, what these manufacturers likely ate for breakfast). Foreign languages can be faked — thanks to Google Translate, and applications like it. Binomial nomenclature is the nomenclature of the day. Of course what gets sacrificed in all this is that elusive substance — story — that elemental, atavistic thing for which we actually turn to written language, in the first place.

Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, May 2014) moves carefully through this territory. Since it is a war novel — set in France and Germany before, and during, the Second World War — it’s not entirely inappropriate to say that it reports back to us like a soldier on a reconnaissance mission: prudent, cautious, steady, looking for the exact right information to bring to its readers.

The novel has two young protagonists: A blind girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who has lost her sight from congenital, bilateral cataracts at the age of six, and Werner Pfennig, a boy who’s grown up in an orphanage, in Germany, in Essen, near the French border. Werner is one year older than Marie-Laure. His father — a coal miner at the massive Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex — has died in a mining accident, and the father’s body was never recovered, and remains entombed far beneath the surface, a fact that haunts Werner’s emotional landscape. By contrast, blind Marie-Laure lives with her devoted father in a four-room apartment near the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle on the left bank of the Seine in Paris; Pere LeBlanc is the museum’s locksmith, the keeper of its hundreds of keys, and he cares for his vulnerable daughter with enviable patience and good-humored devotion. The first section of the novel takes place in 1934.

I will stop right here and say that there are some books that make you feel — as a writer — deeply inadequate. They feel like they were built by an intellect of an entirely different quality than your own. For me, this feeling is associated mostly with works by dead writers — Invisible Cities, War and Peace, Mrs. Dalloway — and now, sadly, A Hundred Years of Solitude. But occasionally I’ve been astonished by a novel written by one of my contemporaries. I’ve felt that same visceral reaction that you get to great writing — that feeling of electricity along the skin, the shiver that can’t quite be explained. Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces is an example of this, for me, as is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. Now, to this small personal list I have to add All the Light We Cannot See, which is — in my mind — a contemporary masterpiece, a book so unlike anything in the past two decades that it stands entirely alone.

This is Doerr’s second novel and its predecessor, the atmospheric work, About Grace, was as much a meditation on the natural world as it was anything else. The story of a hydrologist whose dreams sometimes come true, About Grace had tropes familiar to Doerr’s readers — the failing eyesight, the scientific vocabulary, the exile in a foreign city or country. And yet About Grace suffered — in the judgment of critics, anyway — from a lack of plot.

This is a failing that Doerr circumvents in the first pages of All The Light We Cannot See; he begins the story with an Allied air raid on the town in which his central characters — both children — are living. These are the opening two paragraphs of the novel, a stand-alone section called, “Leaflets.”

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

“The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

It is an urgent message, indeed. Not only are these characters in mortal danger, but — as the reader will soon see — Marie-Laure and Werner are so damaged that, as characters, their plight is almost hypnotic. Physical danger and emotional vulnerability; these are the twin beams upon which Doerr builds his story.

Doerr’s career — which began with the publication of “Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries, Section 6: Writing Home,” in the Atlantic’s short-lived online fiction journal, Atlantic Unbound, roughly fifteen years ago — has been steady and successful. His writing, beautiful and sometimes sardonic but always informed by the specific details of the natural sciences, has deepened from book to book. His sentence has evolved into a versatile animal. Fragmentary, sometimes. Always listening to itself. Elegant.

“She holds it to her nose. It smells of fresh ink. Gasoline, maybe. The paper is crisp; it has not been outside long.

“Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes grows.”

Where All the Light We Cannot See succeeds most, where it shows the deepest emotional capacity, is in the way it treats innocence and childhood. And because Doerr has written his family, and specifically his children, into his writing life (the memoir Four Seasons in Rome is about living in that city with two young children), it seems fair to note the way that parenting saturates this text. This is a father’s novel; a father’s empathy and love mark its pages. How? In part through the awareness of both Marie-Laure and Werner’s physical bodies — especially their hands. There are dozens of passages that illustrate this point, but this one is particularly telling:

“She walks. Now there are cold round pebbles beneath her feet. Now crackling weeds. Now something smoother: wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack. Her fingers dig and reach; the drops of rain touch the back of her neck, the backs of her hands. The sand pulls the heat from her fingertips, from the soles of her feet.”

Doerr’s writing has a real tenderness. You can sense the love that lives behind the page; it is the same kind of ironic depth that suffuses satire; except, here, the depth comes from sincerity. Doerr’s primary work is one of empathetic speculation. What would you do if you could no longer see? Close your eyes and walk into the world — now imagine that you are a young, dependent girl, a child. How, exactly, would you live?

A friend of mine who read the novel was talking about the beauty of the prose, and how the book was also arranged in tiny chapters — a technique more commonly used in thrillers, rather than in literary novels. “It was like he wanted to write a blockbuster film,” the friend said, “as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” While I do agree that the novel is cinematic, I think that the story — which has a subplot with a hidden jewel, a girl hiding from the Wehrmacht, and a young boy who is conscripted into that very army—is too meaty for Tarkovsky’s ambient touch. And yet there is something to this idea. The subtlety of the book comes not in the payoff of its elegantly-structured storyline (and there is a significant payoff), but in the way Doerr casts the story in language.

This novel, then, is truly a marvel. Thinking about the emotions unspooled by its conclusion—a conclusion that manages to be a commentary on familial inheritance and public memory and generational love—I’m reminded of the words of one of its characters. It’s incredible, he says, “that something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much.”

John Cheever wrote, in “The Death of Justina”: “How can a people who don’t mean to understand death hope to understand love — and who will sound the alarm?”

Here, then, is the alarm.

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