Friday, February 12, 2016

On not seeing the light of "All the Light We Cannot See"

Long time readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the Amazon comments of readers who hated a book I liked. Did they see something I missed? Do I agree with their criticism? If not, why not?

Anthony Doerr's WWII novel All the Light We Cannot See" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is a legitimate New York Times best seller. As I write, it has over 21,100 reviews
on Amazon—72 percent of them five-star, 18 percent four-star. How many novels provoke that many Amazon reviews—90 percent of which are positive? For me, it makes the critics who gave the book one star that much more interesting.

A reader writes: "I rarely give up on a book but here I am on page 151 and I just can't see the point of continuing. The chapters are two pages long each and they switch between the two main characters. I just looked ahead and the whole book is set up like this. Maybe this is good writing and a good story but the lack of flow just kills my interest." In fact the point view shifts between more than two characters, and many chapters are more than two pages, not that this would make any difference to this reader.

A reader writes: "It felt like reading a cookbook. I didn't feel that invested in the characters, which was probably a good thing since the plot sputtered out and died. My favorite character disappeared." True, Doerr does not tie up every single loose end, but I would not agree that the plot sputtered out. And a character does disappear, which is a shock to the reader (this reader), but seemed appropriate in the story's context.

Perhaps the most damming critique was by the reader who wrote more than a thousand words that include: "I am a lifelong reader with a PhD in literature and 40 years experience teaching college writing and literature. The more I study fiction, the more I admire a writer who can use structure (the arrangement of the chronological elements of plot) strategically to develop the novel's themes . . .  Doerr . . .  fragments his plot for no apparent purpose. It is disjointed and difficult to follow, with no payoff for the effort. He not only switches back and forth between the two narratives but also along the timeline. Switching back and forth between the two narratives . . . would have been plenty; also switching back and forth along the timeline before, during, and after WWII creates too much discontinuity and makes the narrative hard to follow. . . . Both plots also depend on too many farfetched coincidences, so much so that it strains credulity." This critic's analysis is correct; the conclusion less so. Clearly, thousands of people were either able to follow or were caught up in Doerr's language—as I was.

I thought that at the sentence level, All the Light We Cannot See is extraordinary. This last critic, who is far more sensitive than I, points out examples in which "far too many of the descriptive passages use words as words—a piling on of sounds—rather than to convey actual meaning." Perhaps another slow edit of the book would have caught these, although I suspect not. (Reportedly Doerr spent eight years writing it; one more pass through would probably have been one too many.)

For what it's worth, I had no trouble following the chronology. I did not for a moment believe that these characters were real people in a real WWII. I was not put off by the anachronism I was able to spot. I was willing to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy Doerr's language and admire his ambition. I'd give it four stars.

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