The Art of Written Objects: Three Novels

I don't know if this is a coincidence or popularity, but in the past three months, three of the 2014 novels I've read have an alternating chapter structure and some interesting similarities: they are told either in first person or present tense, they contain some beautiful prose, and, most fascinating to me, they are packed with objects.

Much buzz has been circling around Anthony Doerr's bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See. So, being a curious animal, I wanted to see for myself. The book is 530 pages, but each chapter occupies less than ten pages each; the novel has room to breathe, with plenty of white space for the reader to muse, absorb, pause, and think.

The beauty begins in the first chapter, which is only one paragraph long, and builds from there. At 35 pages into it I was completely intrigued by the prose and by the format. I was happy  reading this vivid sentence, for instance, on page 24: "Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld." Sold! Verbs: fume, truckle, stand, shoved. The last image tops it off. 

Here are the three novels, lined up in the order I read them.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. The alternating stories of an undocumented young woman immigrant needing work (her object desired is an identity card); and a returning veteran with PTSD (his much-handled object is a gun); their eventual meeting and relationship in present-day New York City, a place piled high with bags and clothes and objects and food and trash. (It can be brutal in places. I've written more about it here.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. The alternating stories of a motherless girl who lives with her odd father in a tourist attraction: a house of scientific curiosities; and a young Jewish man, also motherless, who runs from his father and religion to become a photographer; their eventual meeting and relationship in New York, Coney Island in particular, in the early 1900s. These chapters are in pairs: first person narration set in italics, then third-person continuation. As you read you become immersed in the thinking processes of each of the characters. The camera equipment, the objects focused on, the things in jars, and the people as objects are a main part of the story. I was mesmerized by the magical prose until the romantic plot revved up and the beauty gave way to a murder mystery. The mystery was compelling and made me read faster, but the end felt a bit too Hollywood for my taste. For much of it, though, the book gave me nice dreams.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story of Marie-Laure, a motherless French girl who becomes blind and lives with her wonderful father, is interleaved with the story of the German boy Werner, an orphan, who unwittingly becomes a soldier under the Nazis. Marie's father is a skilled woodworker and makes her puzzle boxes for her birthday as well as a model of her town, and he works at the Natural History Museum, a place full of scientific things. Werner has a talent for science, math, and electronics, and he spends much time with radio components. A precious object, a rare diamond, is almost the McGuffin here. The interweaving gives the reader the sense that these two are growing up together, yet apart, as the war moves in and back out through the years: ebb and flow of time in disorder.

For each of these stories, you know that the characters will eventually meet, and likely fall in love. Once their stories begin to intertwine, new characters and/or an outside plot will be introduced. By the end of Doerr's book, it is like trying to wind honey onto a spoon, trying to wind it up and put it away with just one more chapter, then one more long strand. But these last chapters surprised me with their emotional punch.

The stuff described in these books captivated me. The attention to the stuff: vivid descriptions of objects, lots and lots of objects, models, artworks. Look around your room: your stuff speaks about you. In these stories people are transient, constantly collecting and/or packing or rearranging their stuff. They have emotional connections to the objects and intense emotions toward one another.  People are described almost like objects: "Everybody had misplaced someone" (Doerr, 129). War collects its spoils and its human participants.

The people in each book ultimately become more constricted. You can feel their freedoms failing. Slowly, very slowly, new characters are introduced, essential to the tension, to add fear, the keep the plot moving forward. You watch them interact with their objects in different settings and contexts and learn about them. 

The objects are intriguing, the descriptions lovely, but what we are  ultimately interested in , and what all three novels provide, are strong characters to care about. And we do.



Debbie said…
Alison Hoffman is one of my favourite authors, for novels, not the short stories, I like something I can get to grips with. I am really looking forward to reading this one. The other two books I haven't heard of but they both sound great.
I so enjoyed Anthony Doerr too. You post is exquisite, with a perspective I never thought of.