Monthly Archives: December 2017

Imagination and Structure in “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Anthony Doerr and George Saunders are accomplished and celebrated authors. As fiction writers, they work from their own imaginations and seek to provoke the imaginations of their readers. In the case of Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See and Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo, they also researched the historical periods and settings in which they placed their characters and incorporated great detail from that research. We may appropriately label both of these novels as historical fiction.

Combining the historical research with the process and product of their fertile imaginations, they then melded stories into novels with unorthodox narrative structures. They are by far not the first to develop structures for their novels that deviate from the traditional linear and chronological format. Sometimes such experimentation works brilliantly, sometimes not so well.

In any novel, it takes a while for us readers to figure out what’s happening, who the characters are, and how they are interacting. Unorthodox structures can make a novel a particularly challenging read especially in the initial stages. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr flips back and forth in time and runs multiple storylines in parallel. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses direct historical quotations with the dialogue of characters and he places the whole novel’s text in stand-alone statements explicitly attributed to specific characters, historic or imagined.

The provocative structure of Lincoln in the Bardo has defeated more than one reader that I know who have given up on the book, finding it just too confusing … and that’s quite apart from the fantastical depiction of purgatory-dwelling spirits interacting with living human beings in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln comes to mourn the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie.

The lives from childhood to early adulthood of Marie-Laure and Werner are told in alternating chapters in All the Light We Cannot See and it takes a while to figure that out. The challenges for the reader are compounded by many of the fourteen sections of the book each made up of multiple chapters being arranged in non-chronological order: 1944, 1934, 1944, 1940, 1944, 1941, 1944, 1942, 1944, 1944, 1944, 1945, 1974, 2014.

So, Doerr and Saunders are challenging our imagination as readers not only to engage with the characters that they have created but also to do so through complex organizational structures.

Are they successful in challenging us yet keeping us reading until the end?

The more unorthodox of the two was the one to which I responded more enthusiastically. I was totally perplexed initially when I started Lincoln in the Bardo but I was hooked once I figured out what was going on and how the structure and even the page layout contributed to the evolution of the story. Saunders has crafted a story of immense metaphorical complexity and heart-rending poignancy. I loved it.

I appreciate the beauty of the writing in All the Light We Cannot See and the tough yet tender WWII story that Doerr tells. The structure was somewhat problematic for me at the start but I got over that difficulty relatively easily. What I didn’t get was being grabbed in the heart and the intellect. My imagination was provoked but coasted relatively dormant through 530 pages.

I’m glad that I’ve read both of them but it is Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo that I’m raving about to friends.

* * *

For information on Anthony Doerr’s books including All the Light We Cannot See: http://anthonydoerr.com

For information on George Saunders’ books including Lincoln in the Bardohttp://www.georgesaundersbooks.com

For information on my books including my recent collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales: http://DavidGHallman.com

IMG_3970

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Comedian Becomes a Humorist

We know Shawn Hitchins as a comedian. He is now a humorist as well.

With the publication of his A Brief History of Oversharing, Hitchins joins the ranks of those who use humor in writing. He continues to perform stand-up but we don’t have to wait to catch one of his shows to enjoy his wit. We can pick up his book.

Hitchins’ humor is multi-facetted. The unpretentious folksy settings and stories in A Brief History of Oversharing carry some of the same tone as the writings of Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock. But Hitchins goes where Twain and Leacock never ventured: raunchyville. His ribald zingers are akin to Dorothy Parker. Except Hitchins is not acerbic like Parker. He can be cutting but not cruel.

As a writer, he is not only a humorist. He is also a memoirist. The subject of A Brief History of Oversharing is Shawn Hitchins. The book is autobiographical. And this is where his humor becomes really interesting. It is highly self-deprecating. There are many laugh-out-loud moments as Shawn Hitchins describes the wacky crazy life of Shawn Hitchins. We are simultaneously laughing with and at Shawn Hitchins. But we don’t laugh too long or too hard because we sense something beyond the hilarity of the scene. There is an unanticipated poignancy that surfaces frequently in his stories. He is sharing (not oversharing) his vulnerability. There’s not a hint of the maudlin in this. It’s clear-eyed tough writing about the scars as well as the successes.

Because of the nature of my own writing, I’m drawn to memoir. There is a robust literary conversation these days about the genre-bending aspects of contemporary memoir-writing, in particular the convergence of autobiography and fiction in memoirs/novels such as those of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante. Hitchins similarly combines genres — he has written a memoir that uses humor as its principal narrative vehicle. A Brief History of Oversharing is a memoir and a book of humor rolled into one.

There are so many gems in A Brief History of Oversharing. Just a few of my favourites:

  • “I moved to Toronto and quickly learned that living in the Big Smoke is just like living in a small town. Both are full of gossips, bigots, boozers, sluts, addicts, criminals, and Jesus freaks, except living in the city I’m not related to any of them.”
  • “I was raised with an intense sense of belonging and a blind sense of comfort that I’ve been desperately trying to regain since I lost it.”
  • On the thrill of realizing the against-all-odds triumph of the Ginger Pride March in Edinburgh: “Like a cat darting from a litter box, I duck into an alley and begin to laugh so hard and so deeply that I take my sweater and jam it in my mouth to muffle any sound.”
  • On the death of legendary director George Bloomfield with whom Shawn was a personal assistant: “…for the first time I had to negotiate with grief, trying to rationalize loss as if it were an algebraic equation where the sum of permissible feelings would be derived by the number of dinners at the Bloomfields’ multiplied by the number of hours spent on set.”
  • “A succession of memories played in my head, and like Russian dolls they fit neatly within each other, memories dating from adulthood back to childhood where I questioned why I felt like a witness but never the direct object of happiness.”
  • On trying to masturbate to donate sperm to two lesbian friends: “I reach down and knead my genitals while debating what to think about during the next one to twenty-five minutes.”

A common definition of humorist is an intellectual who uses humor in writing. Hitchins has a basket full of insecurities on display in A Brief History of Oversharing, some blatantly and some inconspicuously. While as a person he is about as far from a traditional intellectual as one could imagine, as a writer he is not. A Brief History of Oversharing is a work of considerable intellectual competence in its conception and in its delivery. He should be proud of what he’s accomplished here.

* * *

For information on A Brief History of Oversharing, see: https://shawnhitchins.com

For information on my writings, see: http://davidghallman.com

IMG_3969

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized