Set in France and Germany, before and during World War II, Anthony Doerr’s novel is very conventional despite a litany of literary tricks: It’s written in the present tense, with many short sentences and short chapters that play like impressionistic snapshots, moving back and forth between the novel’s two protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner. This presumably holds the attention of fidgety readers. Or maybe, like any good wartime thriller, it simply forces you to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. It’s enjoyable to read, albeit somewhat like watching a war movie in print.
The story opens with a cinematic flash forward that takes place on “7 August 1944,” as Allied planes bomb the occupied rural French town where Marie-Laure and Werner have come to live – she in hiding, he at war. Doerr returns to this time and place about every 100 pages, as if to remind us to be patient because the good stuff is coming
The main story opens in 1934 and unfurls the destinies of its young central characters, who will meet a decade later. Marie-Laure, blind by age 6 from congenital cataracts, lives in Paris with her father, a museum locksmith who teaches her to navigate the streets from his work to their home by building a detailed model of the neighborhood. Werner, age 7, is a self-taught electronics and math prodigy who fixes a tattered old radio and begins to discover the sounds of a fascinating outside world, including a new Germany on the rise. The Reich eventually puts his gift to good use (for them), although he’s a reluctant patriot, and his every “sieg heil” rings hollow.
In Marie-Laure and her father, we witness the lives of the displaced; in Werner, we see the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Both threads allow Doerr to document the everyday cruelties of the Nazis. There’s also a plot about a valuable but cursed gemstone from the museum that Papa carries with him, and the patient and ruthless Nazi jewel expert tracking it down in a race against time (he’s dying of cancer). The bearer of the stone lives forever, its legend tells, but all who know him suffer horrible fates. It’s an unnecessary flourish, and an overarching metaphor in a book rife with them (boiling frogs, diseased diamond hunters, et al).
For me, All the Light We Cannot See evokes distant memories of Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948), albeit less muscular in its prose. Doerr tells his story with detail that’s either absorbing or exhausting, depending upon your taste (after a rainstorm, “drops fall like seeds from the tip of her umbrella”). We know how the meta-story ends, and all that remains to wonder is what will happen to Marie-Laure and Werner (and the gem). So you may find yourself growing impatient, knowing the two young protagonists will eventually collide, and that Doerr will finally answer his one open question.
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1975 and left as an infant with his parents during the evacuation after the fall of Saigon. He grew up in California, and that, I suspect, is the story he should have told in his rambling debut novel, which has the tone of a satire, albeit a rather transparent one.
Instead, his protagonist – the child of a French Catholic priest and a Vietnamese woman – is 30 when he leaves Vietnam at the end of the war with the “General” whom he served, and he settles in Los Angeles, where he eventually becomes a spy (of sorts). The General dreams of retaking his country from the communists, and he opens a restaurant with his wife to raise money for the movement, one bowl of pho at a time. But the narrator is a sympathizer, spying on the general and his compatriots, and willing to kill for a cause (or a woman).
The novel opens on the cacophonous day in April ’75 when Nguyen Van Thieu resigns the presidency of South Vietnam and flees, leaving the people of his decimated country to scramble for a way out. The story’s protagonist – whose name we never know – narrates his “confessional” from confinement (we only find out where and why at the end), addressing his words to the “Commandant” who has imprisoned him.
Our narrator – college educated in America on scholarships – wrote his senior thesis on “Myth and Symbolism in the Literature of Graham Greene,” whose novels of intrigue echo in Nguyen’s book. In an ugly America after the war, he settles into a California culture of self-interest and amorality, working first as an assistant in the Oriental Studies department at the college where he got his degree. He seems to become a spy because, when you come of age in country at war, duplicity and secrecy are your nature, and once ingrained, they’re nearly impossible to unlearn.
Although The Sympathizer works to tell the story of the war and its aftermath from a Vietnamese point of view, Nguyen is now a university professor of English, so his book is ultimately more informed than lived, and his flashes of mordant humor sometimes feel strained: The department chairman, who (of course) has an Asian wife, “hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental.”
Innocence and guilt, truth and deception – these are the ironies and contradictions with which our humble narrator struggles in America, where even intellectuals (like his department chair) are at best patronizing and at worst racist (unwittingly or not). When he tries to tell a film director – named only the Auteur, who seems to be part Oliver Stone and part Francis Coppola – that his apocalyptic screenplay for a war movie called The Hamlet degrades its Vietnamese characters, the arrogant bastard dismisses him.
But then the Auteur reconsiders – and asks him to consultant and translate on set, a job he takes (he assures himself) to “undermine the enemy’s propaganda.” These are Nguyen’s most agreeable passages, an arch and vivid account of self-righteous filmmaking (to stay in character, the Brando-esque star doesn’t bathe for seven months), although less interesting when the narrator interprets: “The Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage. Killing the extras was either a reenactment of what happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for the next such episode, with the Movie the local anesthetic applied to the American mind, preparing it for any minor irritation before or after such a deed.” We nod with knowing approval at this jaundiced sentiment, but it’s hardly a revelation.
At its best, here and there, The Sympathizer gives us a sense of the emergence of an emigrant community made up of capable and even accomplished people forced to own liquor stores or pizza parlors in their new homeland. The inner and even outer lives of these men and women would have made a far more interesting book than the narrator’s sardonic musings and Nguyen’s weighty fiction.
Set in late ante-bellum America – its exact time is never made clear – Colson Whitehead’s novel tells the story of Cora – the granddaughter of a girl brought from Africa in the Triangle Trade – who eventually escapes with her friend Caesar from the Georgia plantation on which she was born, and where she lives and suffers the ignominies of a life in slavery. Her mother, Mabel, had successfully escaped years earlier: Cora fell asleep the night before with her head resting on her mother’s belly and woke up alone, never to see her again.
But other escapees, like Big Anthony, were not so lucky. On the third day after his capture, his master hosts visitors from Atlanta and Savannah, “swell ladies and gentlemen,” including a newspaper journalist, who savor the slaves’ cooking and coolly witness the proceedings of their visit, which includes Big Anthony’s denouement at the Randall plantation: “They gathered on the front lawn. Randall’s visitors sipped on spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in.”
In passages like these, Whitehead supplies the facts and we supply the outrage. His prose is fairly underwritten, a good choice, and he deftly documents the two realities of slavery: the horrors heaped upon the slaves, and the casualness with which people implemented and consumed it as a circumstance of everyday life. Whitehead turns his thorough research into an historical drama that’s no less effective because of its resemblance to so many other books and movies like it. He lays out the mechanics of plantation slavery: who lived where, how some masters took sexual pleasures from their slaves while others did not, and how some even permitted their slaves to have the occasional birthday celebration (some slaves arranged these events several times a year because none of them knew their actual birthdays).
But even the most benevolent and enlightened master is still a monster in terms of civilization as we now understand it (or struggle to), and there’s little more nobility among the slaves, who often and understandably live an every-man-and-woman-for-themselves sort of life.
When Cora and Caesar finally escape, Whitehead introduces his one post-modern excess: The railroad here is a literal one, a subway network of trains on tracks with conductors and passengers. Fortunately, his capable storytelling continues, so this peculiar fabrication is as unobtrusive as it is thoroughly unnecessary, a metaphor without a meaning, and an effect that tells us nothing more about what he wants to tell us.
The train only pops up now and then, rarely for more than a few pages at a time, although those surreal passages do rob us of a look at how people actually lived on the run between stops. The passengers must never speak of it – a Fight Back Club, you could say. The bulk of the story revolves around its engrossing docu-drama account of America – both South and North – in the time of slavery. In enlightened South Carolina, Cora becomes a house servant and lives comfortably in a dormitory; one less benevolent state to the north (plus ça change?), she hides in an attic and witnesses her first lynchings, both of black people (who are forbidden to enter the state) and white people (who dared to harbor them).
Dogged bounty hunters seem to have become a mini-rage in recent narratives: Think of the 2015 Pulitzer winner, All the Light We Cannot See, and Quentin Tarantino’s history-busting Inglourious Basterds. So Whitehead creates Ridgeway, a white man, the son of a blacksmith, who makes it his profession to track down escaped slaves. He becomes sadistically good at it – but will he catch up with Cora and Caesar? Before we find out, The Underground Railroad thoroughly reminds us once again of how the building of the American Dream was a nightmare for some, and one that still haunts our waking (but not yet woke) nation.