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