Novel Readings

“The Air a Library”: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves travelling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived — maybe a million times more. . . . And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

All the Light We Cannot See makes me resent the way our book reviewing culture has cheapened words like “luminous,” “lyrical,” “evocative,” “poignant” — because All the Light We Cannot is all these things, and yet to describe it this way sounds like succumbing to cliches. Its story — which also risks sounding hackneyed — is simple in outline, and in conception: two young people on either side of an inhumane war, the counterpoint of their stories resisting its reductive cruelties by its tender attention to their humanity. Does that sound a little too easy, perhaps, a little too predictable? Do we need another novel telling us that war is horror, that people are capable of great evil but also of moments of transcendent courage or kindness, that literature is both an escape and an illumination — that listening can lead to either betrayal or love? Do we need to learn, again, the lesson that everyone has a story, and that in ways we cannot always see, those stories are always in some way connected?

Yes, is my answer after finishing this beautiful book. There are other things novels can do, but one of the things they do best is explore the infinite variety of human life, imagining its possibilities and shaping them into forms that will touch and surprise us. For me, Doerr’s novel did exactly this. I read it with rapt interest, and also with mounting suspense as the story moved forward through a series of short, delicately calibrated parts that might, in other hands, have seemed mannered in their very brevity. Doerr balances the kind of lyrical sensibility shown in the passage above (reminiscent for me of Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow) with restrained understatement that gives us room to feel for ourselves. We come to know the main characters — the blind, curious French girl Marie-Laure, and the young German radio engineer Werner Pfennig — by following them from their childhoods to the climactic siege of Saint-Malo, where the novel actually begins. The novel moves between that terrifying present and a past that helps us understand not just the literal movements that set up the final crisis but the subtler forces that have shaped them — Werner especially — into people who act as they finally do.

Marie-Laure is maybe a bit too good to be true, though there’s a deliberate fairy-tale dimension to the novel, which comes complete with ogres and piratical villains (in this case a monomaniacal German officer in pursuit of a fantastic jewel) that encourages us to read it outside the rules of strict realism. She does not change or grow but remains steadfast; while she does in the end need rescuing, it’s her courage and, ultimately, defiance that make her escape possible. Her quest is not for self-knowledge but for trust.

Werner is a more complex and thus interesting character. Doerr avoids the temptation to make him a hapless victim, an innocent cog in the Nazi war machine. Instead, as he gradually and almost belatedly realizes, Werner allows himself to repress the full implications of his actions as his passion for radios is perverted. He loves the technology because it connects him to other people; he ends up using it to calculate their destruction. He comforts himself with the refrain “It’s only numbers,” but of course it isn’t. Against his moral passivity we have the example of his school friend Frederick, nearsighted, unheroic, bird-loving, who said “I will not“; Werner “stood by as the consequences came raining down.”

As Marie-Laure’s literal blindness connects metaphorically to the novel’s exploration of what we see, Werner’s radio waves come to signify the possibilities of connections across distance, time, and enmity. Are these elements too pat? I didn’t think so: any lover of Bleak House is likely to appreciate, rather than disdain, a novel built around multiple refractions of the same idea, not to mention plots that turn on convergences that defy probability to insist on their symbolic and moral meaning. Dickens’s fog is visible, but as Doerr’s elegaic conclusion invites us to recognize, our world is united by invisible elements that we can use either for or against each other. Like Dickens, he commits wholeheartedly to fiction’s capacity for fancy as well as feeling. Though the story he tells is a sad and often painful one, the way he tells it seems to me not just artful but incorrigibly hopeful. What a readerly treat.