(Spoilers ahead. Read the book first.)
Near the beginning of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Werner Pfennig, a boy in a German orphanage, is listening to a radio with his sister. It is 1934. The boy tunes in to a lecture on science, then hears a stranger ask a question that seems meant for him alone:
The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
The stranger’s question is a key to the book’s concerns. All the Light is many things: a historical novel; a coming-of-age book; a detailed homage to the world’s endless detail; a meticulously crafted paean to craft; a meditation on disability and adaptation; a book about trauma, identity, and impossible moral choices. But beneath these concerns, and joining them together, is an abiding preoccupation with the ways we make sense of the world.
To understand the art of Doerr’s sentence, we need to read it closely. But the art of the sentence is also the art of context. At any given moment, everything already-read, everything not-yet-read, comes to bear on the sentence at hand; the sentence, in turn, acts as a prism or a diamond, absorbing and refracting meaning from the novel it inhabits.
It’s significant that the stranger’s question is part of a lecture on science. Far more than most novelists, Doerr is interested in science as a human practice and as a means of knowing the world. Though the question has religious overtones—a world full of light—it refers even more immediately to physics and biology. In the lecture, “light” is meant literally, as a form of radiation; and the brain is described in physiological terms, as “float[ing] in a clear liquid inside the skull.” Doerr is interested in all the light we cannot see, which can be glossed as hope, or the idea of good, in impossible times; but those conventional novelistic concerns are wedded inextricably to science. He is interested not only in the light we cannot see, but in the light we can, and the abiding mystery that we can see it at all. (What’s more, the voice is carried by radio waves, which are on the electromagnetic spectrum: they are, literally, an example of light that cannot be seen.)
Yet Doerr embeds his reflections on science in a novel, not a treatise. Doerr knows that science happens in a human context. The curiosity driving the pursuit of knowledge is only one feeling, mixed with others—loneliness and ambition, in Werner’s case—and plays out in society, which can derail, crush, or co-opt that pursuit.
So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
The stranger’s question also illuminates Doerr’s formal approach: his narrative acquires depth and significance from a carefully orchestrated series of repetitions, a symphony of echoes. In this case, the question echoes not only the title, but also one of the book’s epigraphs. (Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.”) But images of light and radio pervade the book, as we see in Werner’s story.
Werner is plucked from the orphanage and sent to Schulpforta, a brutal Nazi training school. There, his talent for science is put to work: he invents a device that can triangulate on a radio signal, which is used to locate partisans who are broadcasting in the field. Later, as a soldier, Werner operates the device himself: he sits in the back of a truck, scanning the airwaves for voices, directing soldiers to partisans, who are then executed. These scenes offer grotesque echoes of his childhood in the orphanage, where he “prowl[ed] the ionosphere” for a stranger’s voice.
Throughout the novel, Werner remembers fragments of the radio broadcast he heard as a child. These mark his distance from boyhood, and the loss of what he hoped science would be in his life. Though his life in the orphanage was difficult, it was not without hope. Radio stood for the possibility of a life in science, and for connection with others: the stranger’s voice; his sister Jutta,with whom he hears the broadcast; the orphans who listen to the radio with him. Doerr salts Werner’s narrative with echoes of the broadcast, each one measuring the gap between his life and his hopes. (In a parallel motif, Werner periodically receives letters from Jutta, which are increasingly blacked out by censors, and which Werner ceases to answer.) After a mistake on Werner’s part leads to the death of a girl and her mother, Werner recalls part of the lecture: “So really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” For Werner, conscience-stricken, traumatized by the losses he has already suffered, the phrase is newly apt. Light, in any spiritual or moral sense, is unavailable to him.
Werner is living “without a spark of light”; his challenge is how “to build a world full of light.” As Werner’s life spirals downward, the stranger’s question deepens in significance. Late in the book, Werner is trapped under a collapsed building, and needs to repair a radio to find freedom, to find light again in a world of darkness. That scene is itself an echo: it recapitulates the scene when Werner, a child in the orphanage, first hears the stranger’s question. Just as he did as a boy, he repairs a radio, finds a connection to the outside world; this gives him the hope he needs to escape, along with his surviving comrade, from the rubble. (They use a grenade.)
Returning to the world is an almost literal rebirth, and the beginning of Werner’s (partial) redemption. He comes full circle, just as the novel does. After emerging from the collapsed building, Werner deserts his responsibilities as a soldier, turns from abetting assassination to finding and helping to rescue Marie-Laure. As Doerr’s deployment of echoes makes this clear, journey is mediated by science, but was always primarily moral.
The radio motif is key to the book’s plot, and to understanding Werner. But radio is only one form of the information technologies that fill the book: leaflets falling from the sky, books of Braille, radio waves, blacked-out letters from home, slips of paper baked into loaves of bread. These offer a key to Doerr’s metafictional concerns: the novel, like a radio broadcast, is at once public and deeply intimate. We receive it like a Resistance message hidden in bread—sustaining, hidden in sustenance, meant only for us.
Doerr is making a larger argument for the sustenance literature provides. Returning to Werner’s boyhood, and the stranger’s question, we see that Werner is excited by science—but that he responds to the broadcast as literature. He is inspired by a “lavish, penetrating voice.” He feels transported, “launched into a different existence,” and his perceptions of reality are altered: “Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?” The experience is also inflected by religion: Werner imagines radio waves as “mile-long harp strings… flying through forests, through cities, through walls.” He responds, in other words, with metaphor. Werner is, in that moment, an ideal reader, perfectly attuned to another’s signal, building a world of light from that invisible transmission.
From this perspective, “all the light” of the book’s title invokes a book’s workings upon the brain, any description reconstituted in the brain’s darkness. Werner’s story is then also about the power of writing, its capacity to align distant brains with a paradoxical intimacy, to create a network of like-minded people, an improvised family of listeners. Reading All the Light, we are, in a strange way, included in that family; and as we read about Werner in the attic, absorbed in the words of a distant stranger, our situation parallels that of the character before us. Just as Werner discovers possibility in isolation, just as the brain, “locked in total darkness,” finds the light of others, so do we.
There’s a paradox in the broadcast Werner hears: a confined space can still contain infinite possibility. The brain, “without a spark of light,” can build a luminous world. Writing also can build that world for us, illuminating a model of the actual with moral understanding, linking us to other solitudes, and teaching us to see beyond our accustomed range.
George Estreich is the author of Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, a book of poems, and of The Shape of the Eye, which won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His essays have been published widely, most recently in The New York Times.