“Here We Are Now, Entertain Us”: Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana”

Techniques tracked:
-structure: intersection of acute and chronic tension for climax
-use of objects to facilitate aforementioned climactic intersection
-foreshadowing how the climactic intersection will occur to make it feel more satisfying to the reader when it does occur
-creating an off-kilter but familiar world


Adam Johnson’s short story “Nirvana,” the opener from his 2015 collection Fortune Smiles and winner of the Sunday Times short story prize (the largest cash award for a single story), has a lot going on in it. The story opens with the first-person narrator in bed next to his wife, hearing the whisper of Nirvana lyrics through her headphones. His wife is paralyzed, possibly temporarily, possibly not, with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and potentially suicidal. She tells him he needs to stop talking to the president, to move on because the president is dead. Then the narrator snatches a drone that’s hovering outside his window. Later he talks to a hologram of the assassinated president he built himself, and we get the backstory about the saga of his wife’s illness, from hospital admittance to diagnosis to discharge. He started making the president hologram after learning Charlotte’s condition had seemed to progress past the point of no return. In the present, he fights with Charlotte about his optimism. His boss Sanjay comes over to help figure out who the drone belongs to (Google); Sanjay wants him to make more holograms to become rich. He lets Charlotte use the drone he’s taken over to smell roses. They have sex at her insistence, during which he has the memory of when she exacted the promise from him to help her kill herself. She needs to listen to Nirvana during the sex, prompting him to demand why she needs Nirvana so much and to go and finally listen to an album when they’re done, which does not help him understand. The drone is hovering around, annoying him, and he opens the garage door to let it out, at which point he sees the cat that they had to get rid of down the street and suddenly understands what it is Chalotte needs. He makes her a hologram of Kurt Cobain, and when she sees it, she pleads with Kurt not to kill himself because of how much he means to her.

The chronic tension isn’t just that the narrator’s wife has become paralyzed from the neck down (which happens before the start of the story, but since the paralysis is ongoing winds up becoming an element of the acute tension). It’s also that she’s extracted a promise from the narrator to help her kill herself if she decides she can’t take it anymore. And it’s also the narrator’s need and inability to save his wife (as we get in his explanation of why he made the president: “I just needed to save somebody, and with the President, it didn’t matter that it was too late.”) as well as their conflicting mindsets about her illness (hers often pessimistic, his optimistic, or trying to be). The acute tension is her escalating pain and this random drone that shows up at the narrator’s window on the second page.

The narrator needs to talk to the president for the same or at least similar reasons that his wife needs to listen to Nirvana; these are the outlets of comfort in times of crisis that appeal to their obviously different sensibilities. The main problem in the story is that they can’t understand each other’s coping mechanism, to the point of actively discouraging the other from using theirs. This conflict is resolved when the narrator understands that his wife gets the same thing from Nirvana that he gets from the president, and to show he understands this, he makes her the hologram. In doing so, he also induces her to understand his perspective–everything she says to Kurt are the things that the narrator has been desperately needing to communicate to her, but hasn’t been able to. They are communicating indirectly via this Kurt Cobain hologram. The object facilitates plot resolution through its facilitation of this communication. One of the peripheral characters voices this phenomenon of objects as conduits to understanding:

As Sanjay puts it, “They have no idea what I do out here, as if I could make them understand that I help bad sushi chefs ward off Twitter trolls. But the American President, that they understand.”

But the president hologram is technically from the chronic tension, though the question of what the narrator will do with it is present in the acute, since what’s happening in the present is both the world and his company realizing the hologram’s potential. In this way the surface plot of the acute tension mirrors the emotional transition the narrator must make in the present in order to achieve resolution–the question of what he’ll do with the hologram induced by Sanjay, his boss, presenting the prospect of how much money it will make, is a symbol for the question of what else he’ll do with the hologram–use it to facilitate a new understanding between him and his wife. So the president hologram is dictating the escalation of the acute tension. The narrator’s and his wife’s different attitudes toward talking to the dead president reflect their different attitudes toward his wife’s predicament–this is what the arc of the plot is moving toward, a reconciliation between these seemingly irreconcilable attitudes. But the drone is the object that’s more primarily acute, since it does not appear until after the start of the story, and the fact that the narrator snatches it from outside his house in the first scene seems to be the reason this is where the story starts; presumably there have been many other nights where he’s woken next to Charlotte hearing her Nirvana lyrics; this night is important because of the drone. So how does the drone wind up figuring in the plot to help compel closure by resolving the chronic tension?

What the narrator is trying to do with the drone is the same thing he’s trying to do with the president–he’s trying to take over something that isn’t his, feeling entitled to do so because the thing (his emotions surrounding the president’s death, the drone) seems to be stalking him, is something that he can’t get rid of. But the drone has to do more than just be a symbol; it has to have immediate plot consequence, or else it will feel contrived. The drone’s consequence winds up being subtle–the narrator’s opening the garage to let it out leads to him seeing the cat that they got rid of because it sat on Charlotte’s tracheal incision–and it is seeing the cat, this thing they had to get rid of, a symbol of what they’ve lost, that leads to his epiphany about what Charlotte needs. The cat, then, is also an important object, a subtle one that’s mentioned so fleetingly one might suspect it’s a spandrel, originating as a minor detail emphasizing the extremity of the change once Charlotte returns home from the hospital that Johnson was then able to use to facilitate closure.  

The narrator comes to understand what she needs, which is to also see what he needs–everything she says to Kurt Cobain is what he wants to say to her, wants her to understand. He’s translated his experience to her. The holograms might be useless for what they’re actually supposed to be for, talking to “real” people, but in an unexpected way they did facilitate communication between flesh-and-blood people (or fictional flesh-and-blood people, anyway).

A couple of quotes show how Johnson foreshadowed the conclusion he was leading to in passages that more or less describe what will happen, though the reader doesn’t realize that on first read. This trick makes the ending feel more satisfying to the reader because it makes them expect it without knowing they expect it:

…she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.

“You love Kurt Cobain.”
“He’s dead.”
“Too bad he’s not alive for you to get mad at.”
“Man, I would let him have it,” she says.

As always with Johnson, this world is familiar even if we haven’t quite reached it yet. He pulls this off with hyper-specific details. First, the fact that the story is set in the real Palo Alto, and the way he actually describes what the hologram is:

“I wrote an algorithm, based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video compiler. The program scrubs the Web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—everything you say, you’ve said before.”

There’s all the references to Google. The president isn’t real (we haven’t had one assassinated recently), but Kurt Cobain is. “Realness” is important as a theme. The realness, or lack of realness, of the president in the hologram. The realness of Charlotte’s disease. The realness of the world–we could reach this point of technological advancement even if we haven’t yet, just like Charlotte’s disease could reach the point of her demanding the narrator fulfill his promise. The world is both strange and familiar to us, and in offering a vision of the possible future of technology, but Johnson leaves it up to the reader to judge whether its potential consequences will be good or bad. It’s up to the reader to judge the narrator’s gesture of facilitating communication with his wife by placing yet another implement between them. At the end of the story they might understand each other better, but they’re still not communicating directly. Is this a sinister sign of the increasing divide technology will cause, or is technology facilitating what would not have been possible otherwise, enabling Charlotte to smell roses and to see things from her husband’s perspective? The gesture of giving her the Cobain hologram seems generous, but is it? Is he selfish, fixated on trying to get her to see things his way, rather than trying to see things her way? Or does this gesture imply he is seeing things her way; are their differing perspectives as embodied in the president v. Cobain perfectly unified in the Cobain hologram? It’s up to the reader to decide.



Objects and Tension in “Herr Siedler”

Techniques tracked:
-raising tension
-using the objective correlative (to raise tension and/or show the character’s emotional state without telling it)

This is an example class presentation post adapted from a post on Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, where you can find out the rest of what happens in the novel if you don’t feel like reading it. For this presentation, I highlighted Doerr’s use of objects (yellow) and development of tension (blue) throughout the chapter, which often intersect.

In the chapter “Herr Siedler,” the title character is a Nazi soldier who comes to the orphanage where Werner lives with his sister Jutta, causing Werner to think the Nazis must know about the radio they listen to that they’re not supposed to have. The soldier takes Werner with him back to his house, where he asks him to try to fix a radio (the nicest radio Werner has ever seen) that no one else has been able to. Werner examines it and successfully fixes it. The soldier gives him pieces of cake with forbidden cream as a reward and is so impressed with Werner that he says he’ll write a letter for him to a Nazi recruiting board. Werner goes back to the orphanage, where the frau, relieved they just wanted him to fix a radio, gives him his dinner—a boiled potato. Werner eats, though he’s not hungry, then later that night crushes the radio they’re not supposed to be listening to with a brick.

The acute tension of the chapter is what will happen to Werner in this particular encounter with this Nazi soldier. The chronic tension is that he’s been doing something he isn’t supposed to (listening to a radio) that gives him a reason to be more stressed about having a direct encounter with a Nazi soldier than one already would be. Werner’s love of his radio is an important part of the tension that Doerr’s been developing in the chapters leading up to this.

The first objects in the chapter are there mostly to instill tension—“the shortwave radio” Werner is worried the soldier knows about, and the “children’s book about a talking train” the soldier flips through before announcing what he’s actually there for—the longer the soldier waits to make the announcement that confirms he’s not there to arrest anyone, the higher the tension gets; the Nazi knows this, not just Doerr, which is why he flips through the book; he enjoys the tension his presence raises, the anxiety he produces in others. Doerr is able to make a lighthearted children’s book seem dark; the meaning of objects changes depending on the context.

Objects are also how Doerr communicates how unfamiliar the luxury of the soldier’s house is to Werner: the daisies in the woman’s hair, the thick carpet, the electric bulbs (something that most people would not even notice; the fact that Werner does lets us know that electricity is not something he’s used to), the roses on the wallpaper, the fire in the fireplace. Every object that’s listed is, we can assume, something Werner does not have. Except for a radio, though of course the one the soldier has is much nicer, the nicest Werner’s ever laid eyes on.

At first, the tension in the chapter is whether the Nazis know about their forbidden radio, and whether Werner will be arrested for it. Even after he’s been with the soldier for awhile and hasn’t been arrested, even once he’s at the soldier’s house, the tension that he might be arrested still exists for Werner (and thus, for the reader): “Is this where they arrest boys whose sisters listen to foreign radio stations?” The soldier also calls the radio “the offending device,” referring to the fact that his specific one is broken, but reminding us yet again that having a radio is an arrestable offense, thus maintaining the tension. Once Werner figures out they’re not there to harm him, but rather want his help, the tension shifts, a new thread raised by a heretofore unexpected possibility—that maybe getting to join the Nazi regime wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. In this moment Werner starts to consider the possibilities opened up by the regime that he hasn’t quite let himself before, because he hasn’t been confronted with their concrete manifestations (the super nice radio, the cake with forbidden cream). The objects the character interacts with literally in the acute tension (being at a Nazi soldier’s house to fix his radio) are what have raised this chronic tension (will Werner join the Nazi regime? What havoc will he directly/indirectly wreak if he does?).

The contrast between the niceness of the soldier’s radio and Werner’s, not to mention the fact that he’s allowed to use one while Werner isn’t, is precisely what starts to escalate that second thread of tension, to transmute the chronic into the acute–any good climax should be the intersection of chronic and acute, the acute events causing the chronic tension to breach the surface and thus reach some sort of resolution/closure. Werner and his sister seem to know the Nazi regime is evil. But they live in a mining town where their father was killed on the job. They don’t exactly have a lot of options. This chapter is important in Werner’s overall arc for raising the specter of his getting to use radios as part of his livelihood, something he never would have gotten to do otherwise. Doerr has basically put Werner in a position where the reader can’t help but understand his potential desire to join the Nazi regime, where they can see that, were they in Werner’s position, they would make the same choice, because they would see that there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter at all.

And in case the reader still can’t understand why Werner might be tempted to join the regime at this point, Doerr seals the deal with the bloody potato, in this case a boiled one. The boiled potato is everything bland about Werner’s current circumstances, while the cake represents the alluring (if dangerously decadent) opportunities available in the Nazi regime. The reader can feel the conundrum viscerally on this level–we all know that cream-topped cake is preferable to a boiled potato. The choice between these two things is a no-brainer, just as Werner’s is to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school. It’s that, or die in the mines like his father.

Doerr confirms that this is the moment Werner is making a critical choice by showing him smash the Nazi radio. The action of Werner smashing the radio correlates to his choosing to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school.



The Novel-In-Stories Echo Chamber of Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park

Techniques tracked:
-connecting stories in a plot that constitutes a novel
-the point of characters’ intersections as starting point instead of climax


(Disclaimer: my reading of this text and copied quotations below are from an Advanced Reader’s Copy, and have possibly changed in the officially published version.)

The novel-in-stories The Madonnas of Echo Park (2010) is dedicated to the culture that its author Brando Skyhorse only later discovered was part of his own heritage, a culture that, as a child not knowing he was part Hispanic, he’d attempted to distance himself from. Appropriate to this heritage, the connecting thread of these disparate stories, told from the point of view of first-, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, has an appropriately Catholic aesthetic, but one that leaves room for secular spirituality.

Skyhorse brings memoir to this collection of fiction by including an autobiographical introduction with the arc and heft of a short story–in this case, the story of how he came to write this novel-in-stories. The “Author’s Note” tells how he rejected a girl during a junior high dance party:

“You are a Mexican,” I said, loud enough for the entire class this time. “I can’t dance with you.”

This is the Note’s climax, this moment of shame that will haunt the narrator for years to come; the girl, Aurora, never returns to school after this day.

The Note is itself a great lesson in how to pull off a piece of creative nonfiction; Skyhorse baits us with a moment of shame and then delivers, ingratiating himself to the reader by revealing this thing most readers will instantly feel they would never have wanted aired about themselves. By being forthcoming about his own undesirable traits, he taps into readers’ own shameful moments rather than invoking their judgment about his.

As a springboard for the novel itself, the Note is interesting in that the episode it describes only appears in the character Aurora’s narrative in passing (in the second story “The Blossoms of Los Feliz,” from Aurora’s mother’s perspective):

Aurora couldn’t face her classmates because of this and some incident at school that she started telling me about, then stopped when she told me I’d gotten the details wrong (someone called her “a dirty Mexican”).

While Skyhorse opened with a brutally honest confession, the novel itself might seem to let him off the hook; the real reason Aurora doesn’t return to school is something other than this incident at school. The “this” in the above passage, rather than the autobiographical school incident, is what the novel is concerned with and as such, it provides the connective tissue between the disparate stories. The “this” that links all of these stories’ first-person narrators is the drive-by shooting of a young girl outside a bodega that Aurora and her mother were present for; the corner had become a tourist attraction for mothers and daughters after it appeared in Madonna’s “Borderline” video (pictured above), which in the Note is the song Aurora has asked the author to dance to when he refuses her. The young victim of the shooting becomes known as “Baby Madonna.”

The novel’s interlinked stories offer an impressive, intricate narrative that enables it to be classified as a novel, though its connections and plot are much subtler than most. The movement of a stray bullet like the one that struck Baby Madonna, the random way it ricochets, mirrors this novel’s narrative structure: the story ricochets from one character to another, but everything it strikes is part of the same whole. Such a structure might imply that these characters’ separate stories are leading to a climactic moment in which their lives intersect (as with the structure of Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See), but this point of intersection isn’t what the momentum of the narrative is building toward. Rather, the novel offers us the point where they all intersect and let’s see where/how all their trajectories ricocheted after/as a result of that. The novel’s structure is essentially: Here is ground zero; let’s see where the shrapnel flew. Published in the years between novels-in-stories taking the Pulitzer (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in 2009 and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2011), it’s interesting to see how this particular model for a novel-in-stories compares, one in which the tension largely resides in figuring out how the characters’ trajectories trace back to Ground Zero, in this case the corner of the Baby Madonna shooting.

Aside from connections to the shooting, all narrators are implicitly included in the “we” the first story/chapter opens with:

We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.

This quote refers not only to this portion of southern California that used to be Mexico, but to the specific Mexican neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, bulldozed to build Dodger Stadium (a fact that rears its head in some form in pretty much all of the stories), and driving its residents to the nearby neighborhood of Echo Park. Not incidentally, Aurora is named for the last woman to be dragged from Chavez Ravine before it was destroyed. Not incidentally, all the disparate narrators lead back to her, revealing themselves to be members of family units that overlap like Vinn diagrams.

Each story, while enriched by the larger context of the novel as a whole, could stand on its own as a story, meaning each has threads of chronic and acute tension that intersect for the climax.

The first, “Bienvenidos,” is that of Aurora’s father, Hector, who was brought over as a baby and doesn’t have U.S. citizenship. His acute tension is that the fancy Hollywood restaurant where he worked for years has closed, so now he tries to work as a trabajador despite little experience, and one day when his friend is killed on the job at a construction site, he’s bribed into getting rid of the sledgehammer that killed him. Hector’s chronic tension is that he ruined his family by cheating, and had a falling out with his daughter Aurora, who never respected his work. Thinking that his lies have gotten him nowhere in life, he decides to turn himself in at the Echo Park Lotus Blossom festival and is deported.  

“The Blossoms of Los Feliz” is from the point of view of Aurora’s mother, Felicia, who worked as a cleaning lady for rich people in the Hollywood Hills. After the shooting, there was a picture in the paper of Felicia and Aurora taken right before the girl was shot that caused a dispute about if Aurora should have been the one to get shot. In the wake of this attention, Aurora became sullen and distant, and Felicia lost her job but was then hired on by an eccentric hermit named Mrs. Calhoun who’s married to a gay man. She and Mrs. Calhoun form a bond for both having unfaithful husbands, but eventually Felicia’s let go for cheaper help at the husband’s behest, and Mrs. Calhoun drowns herself in the pool.

“Our Lady of the Lost Angels” is told from the point of view of Aurora’s grandmother, Felicia’s mother, who got her family evicted from her uncle’s for refusing to have sex with him, then went into a convent, where she was married off to a much older man and gave Felicia away because he wasn’t interested in a daughter. She gets a strong vibe from seeing the picture in the paper about the Baby Madonna shooting that, unbeknownst to her, shows her daughter and granddaughter. She visits the corner of the shooting and has a vision of the Virgin Mary, who tells her she’s cold because she has no love and that another messenger will come to her when she’s ready. Now the narrator can never get warm.

“Rules of the Road” is told from the point of view of Efren, a bus driver who Felicia flirted with in “The Blossoms of Los Feliz” who was rude to her when she wouldn’t go on a date with him. It gradually becomes clear that Efren is giving the circuitous account of a particular incident in which he hit and killed someone with his bus. He first tells of his past, how he fled a gang family and always follows the rules, eventually describing how he kicked a Mexican kid off his bus one day for breaking them (though another, black, kid was probably equally responsible for starting the conflict), and then the kid chased the bus, and when Efren suddenly had to swerve to avoid a truck running a red light, he hit the kid. The truck didn’t stop, so it looked like Efren hit the kid on purpose, though he swears he didn’t. After he hit the kid, he drove off route and a guy got on the bus and even though Efren told him the bus was out of service, he insisted until Efren told him he’d take him where he needed to go.

Yo Soy el Army” is told from the point of view of Efren’s estranged brother Manny, Jr., who stayed in the gang family, though he’s retired now. The acute tension is his son Juan’s getting ready to leave for basic training and Manny’s trying (and ultimately failing) to find the words to tell him not to go. The chronic tension describes how Manny came to be married to his now-dead wife and came to terms with Juan’s relationship with an Asian girl that he always imagined Juan would marry, though Juan’s instead just married a Mexican girl, Angie. Juan gives Manny a letter to give to Angie in case he dies overseas.

In “The Hustler,” Freddy Blas, adamantly American, has just been released from prison. He tells us his story, how he first learned to con working in a taco truck, and how he was sent away for his longest stint in the course of actually trying to work a straight job valet parking after accidentally stomping an accelerator and maiming one of his fellow drivers. In the present, he returns to his girl Cristina’s house in Echo Park (this is the woman Hector cheated on Felicia with in “Bienvenidos” and Angie’s mother from “Yo Soy el Army”), but a neighbor tells him she died a few years ago. He goes to a bar and hustles up some money in a pool game, but bets it all a cheap trick that his mark doesn’t take too well–he beats Freddy up and doesn’t pay him. Freddy passes out in an alley and wakes up with a bus sitting in front of him that he talks his way on to even though the driver (Efren from “Rules of the Road”) tells him it’s out of service.

The bulk of “Cool Kids” is backstory, told from the point of view of Angie. She describes her teenage friendship with Duchess, a headstrong fashionista who had pride in the neighborhood while Angie wanted nothing but to get away. Before their high school graduation, they have a fight about Angie’s getting a job at a clothing store in a better part of town; she wears an ugly dress from it to the graduation, where she meets Duchess’s current boyfriend, Juan, who hits on her. Duchess and Angie drift apart, but when Duchess is stabbed at the bank where she works in their neighborhood, Juan and Angie agree to get married after scattering her ashes. In the present, a letter has just appeared at Angie’s back door from Juan, the letter he wrote her in case he died, in which he finishes the story she never let him about falling in love with her the day he saw her in the ugly dress at her graduation. Angie is pregnant.

The final story, “La Luz y la Tierra,” is from the point of view of Aurora, returning to Echo Park as an unemployed thirty-year-old. When she goes to her mother’s house to help her clean, she accidentally lets the dog Blackjack out, and has to go on a pilgrimage to track him down that reunites her with a few childhood landmarks and acquaintances, first to her mother’s boyfriend Vince’s, then to Lorenzo’s furniture store, then, delivering a chair for Lorenzo, to the Coat Queen, an old lady who has hundreds of coats, none of which will keep her warm (which we recognize as Aurora’s maternal grandmother from “Our Lady of the Lost Angels”). Aurora gives the Coat Queen her own coat, prompting her to get rid of the rest of her coats because she’s finally warm. Aurora finds the dog but loses him when he’s forcibly taken by “the Lord,” a neighborhood bum rumored to be clairvoyant. It turns out the Lord is working for her mother, and returns the dog to her, at which point she gives the dog to Aurora because she’s moving. The acute tension here is Aurora’s chase after the dog, while the chronic tension is her sense that she doesn’t belong in this much-changed neighborhood anymore. In the climactic moment, immediately after Aurora shows her mettle fighting the Lord for the dog, she sees her idol Morissey mouth “You belong,” the exact opposite of the sentiment voiced to her by the Lord and his goons.

The plot model for both the novel as a whole and the individual stories is the concept uttered overtly by more than one character: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Even non-Catholics can appreciate the catharsis of such a philosophy, and Skyhorse ensures altogether non-religious people can too by offering us narratives in which something bad happens for a good reason, the quintessential example being when Aurora sees Morissey and receives her confirmation that she does belong only after going through the arduous struggle of tracking down the dog; if the dog hadn’t literally dragged her through the mud to that particular point, she would not have seen him. Skyhorse also provides a secular flavor by creating a human character called “the Lord.”

It seems then that the larger purpose of revealing the connection between the individual stories would be to show how one bad event in one led to a good event in another, but on this front, Skyhorse doesn’t quite deliver. Figuring out how each of the characters connects to the Baby Madonna shooting isn’t enough to keep us turning pages, nor is waiting vaguely to ascertain the ripple effect of a negative event early on. The immediate narrative hook Skyhorse employs to this end, the overarching plot he packs his individual accounts into, is where the book’s more patently Catholic aesthetic comes in. In the third story, Felicia’s mother has a vision of the Virgin Mary who tells her:

‘Another messenger will come to you. You will give them something that means everything to you without question or expectation. Then I will come and find you.’

The expectation is set up here that the stories are potentially unfolding with the specific purpose of illuminating the path of this particular messenger, that everything might be leading to the moment this messenger comes. The final story seems like it’s going to deliver on this promise. Aurora’s story is a classic hero’s-journey narrative, but the book’s apparent destination, the reunion with her real grandmother, is merely a pit stop on the destination of Aurora’s journey, recapturing the dog. In this way Skyhorse’s plot threads intersect obliquely, in a way that’s satisfying while remaining true to the messiness of real life.

I still have a lot of unanswered questions about the connections between the stories, though the more I think about them, the more I wonder if such questions are precisely the point. My first issue with the overarching plot is that the Virgin Mary tells Felicia’s mother she has to give the messenger something that means something to her, but it’s Aurora who gives her her coat. This might be why the Coat Queen gets rid of all the other coats despite telling Aurora that the coat she gave her “didn’t work”; if it didn’t work, why is she getting rid of the rest of the coats?

This structure of connected stories implicitly sets up a question: what critical event(s) are all these narrative trajectories having some sort of critical influence on? In the final story, Aurora not only meets her grandmother, unbeknownst to her, she also meets her father, unbeknownst to her. So to me it seemed like events from all the intervening stories were conspiring to put Aurora in these unknown relatives’ paths. But I was disappointed in that nothing momentous actually happened as a result of these path-crossings. I was waiting for Hector to somehow be redeemed for making the morally right choice in the first story despite its grave cost, waiting to see that it was a good thing he did make the right choice, because unbeknownst to him his real daughter was watching him at the critical moment of decision…or something. But I can glean no concrete outcome, no map that Hector’s deportation becomes a critical part of in causing X outcome.

What we do get through the stories is what happened to Hector’s lost daughters, referenced on the second page of his, the first story:

And my daughters, they are both lost to me, somewhere in the blinding California sunshine.

The novel as a whole is giving us the story of what happened to both of his daughters after he lost them, but this is largely obfuscated by the fact that Aurora is the only one who appears in “Bienvenidos.” The major clue that Angie is Hector’s comes in “The Hustler,” when Freddy is talking about Angie’s mother:

…Cristina told me she’d never stop loving me, unlike the asshole who knocked her up, some cabrón named Hector.

It turns out Angie and Aurora are both Hector’s daughters, though personally I hadn’t realized Angie was Hector’s when I finished the book and didn’t realize it until I was writing this; if I hadn’t thought so much about it, it never would have occurred to me. Aurora has an encounter with Angie at the same festival where she sees her father without knowing it; Angie’s daughter’s balloon string snags in a knot on Aurora’s wrist, and Aurora helps untangle it while she and Angie converse about the changing neighborhood. As soon as Angie walks off, the balloon string tangles again, causing Angie to yell at her daughter in a moment that nicely undermines the scene’s potential sentimentality. The scene seems to be of much more symbolic than plot consequence, showing the knots our lives are tied in with others, with and without us knowing it, but it has much more power realizing that these two strangers are sisters and will never have any idea.

But the roles of “Rules of the Road” and “The Hustler” in the overarching narrative are still fuzzy to me. It’s hard to pin down what larger purpose the character’s tragedy is supposed to serve in the scope of the larger narrative. Aurora’s story, being the final one, is where the relevance of the previous stories must be realized, and Efren and the Hustler do appear there:

A blast of air from a passing bus, carrying one man sitting in the back, lifts the star off my hand. Follow me, the star seems to say, as it corkscrew whips in the air, fluttering like a phosphorescent butterfly down the street until it plops into the waters of Echo Park Lake.

Aurora is in between stops on her journey to find the dog here, and I’m looking for this passing bus to have some sort of direct influence on this journey, like if Aurora felt compelled to follow the sticker the bus’s exhaust tore from her hand, and because she followed it she wound up somewhere she wouldn’t have otherwise. But the passing bus has no direct bearing on her path; she merely notices it and continues on exactly as she would have if it had never passed. It would be different if the bus could somehow have played a role, however small, in her path crossing with her long lost half-sister or father, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it seemed too coincidental to have Angie’s path cross with her half sister’s by the influence of her own stepfather, but I’m still left wondering why it’s so important the Hustler get on this particular bus.

On the whole, for me, the individual stories offer more satisfaction than the whole they’re a part of. The arc of Efren’s was one of my favorites, as he reveals himself to be a quintessential unreliable narrator. The biggest direct link causally between Hector’s story and anyone else’s is with Efren’s, in that the truck Hector is being driven by his white bosses in is the truck that causes Efren to swerve and hit the kid he kicked off his bus. As Efren reveals himself to be unreliable, much of what he offers turning out to be misleading, the reader realizes how he will appear to the authorities he’s giving this account to. His unreliability will make it seem like he’s lying about the truck he swerved to miss, of which there’s no evidence. It is, ironically, Efren’s lying that makes the fact that he’s telling the truth about this seemingly invisible truck so tragic–the reader can see that he’s telling the truth about this one aspect, that there really was a truck he had to swerve around, because we saw this actually happen in the first story, and we can also see how it’s not going to look like he’s telling the truth to anyone else who doesn’t have the inside information that we have–specifically, to the authorities in whose hands his fate rests. My issue with this particular aspect of the plot is that it’s not Hector’s climactic decision to do right that affects the outcome and/or reader’s perception of Efren’s story, but rather something Hector really has no control of; it was his choice to get in the truck with the white bosses, but the stakes weren’t that high in the moment he made that particular choice (it was not yet, at that point, a difficult choice, or even regarded by Hector as a choice at all). The Lord didn’t work in mysterious ways to produce a positive outcome from the negative of Hector’s deportation, but instead made more negatives from negatives. Which is, yes, true to life, and only problematic in light of the novel’s promise to provide us a more concrete map of the mysterious ways the Lord is working in.

Still, though it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise, the novel does illuminate a network of connections and consequences I could accept as true to life. But while I could go with the magical realist/spiritual element of the Virgin Mary’s messenger linking the stories, there were a few plot twists that stretched believability in a more problematic way. The description of the Hustler’s accidental accelerator-stomping that got him twelve years in jail was one such instance; Angie’s daughter’s balloon string snagging on Aurora’s wrist was another. The most egregious was the death of Duchess:

The chola grabbed a letter opener from the manager’s desk and tried to slice his check open. The blade missed and gouged Duchess’s jugular vein. She was killed “instantly,” I was told.  

Almost equally unbelievable is that Angie doesn’t give Juan the time of day until this happens, when she and Duchess were no longer really friends at that point. It’s also unclear whether the letter from Juan she reads is supposed to indicate that he actually died, or if Manny gave her the letter prematurely, as he’s worried he’ll do when Juan gives him the letter in the first place.

A few years ago I heard the short story writer Steven Schwartz give a talk analyzing the plot of The Great Gatsby; he pointed out how improbable its plot is, the major coincidence tying it together of the woman Daisy hits being her husband’s mistress. But he said we accept that, because the emotional reaction to that improbability rings true: were Daisy to do such a thing, it makes emotional sense that Gatsby would take the fall for her and that she would turn around and go back to the husband who was cheating on her with that mistress in the first place, choosing class over love. That assessment also stands for Skyhorse’s novel, I think, where it is precisely the implausible events that tie the plot together. The plot itself is at times, in those improbable twists, similar to a telenovela, which is referenced throughout (and makes sense–Skyhorse has said he believes Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek,” which makes much use of telenovelas, should be required reading):

Is the neighborhood’s miracle worker a destitute hermit who has a satellite dish hookup to his tin can of a house in the middle of a barren field so he can watch telenovelas?

The subtlety of the connections between the individual narratives and the lack of neatness with which they tie together seem to imply that even when blood relations are lost to you, your connection to them still exists, even if you aren’t conscious or cognizant of it. There’s the moment Aurora comes, unbeknownst to her, very physically close to her father, which she’s sensing without even realizing it, though enough concrete clues are provided that the reader does:

I walk across the street in a daze to the now deserted construction site, where I hear a radio play an old Spanish ranchera. The workers are gone. How long had I been in the Coat Queen’s house? The song drifts above a barley sea of weeds, dead brush, and garbage, an unfamiliar melody paired with a recognizable voice. I can’t place it, though. There’s a plaintive loss I feel whenever I walk past a construction site, or a kitchen in a restaurant, and overhear one of those ancient Spanish songs playing through a pair of cheap transistor radio speakers. The pain in the balladeers’ voices in those songs; it’s like picking up an emergency broadcast from a world that exists only in my peripheral vision.

Soon thereafter she literally sees her father without knowing it:

A trabajador around my father’s age wanders around in a circle carrying a large yellow mallet. Vince is walking hand in hand with a woman who could be my mother save for the confidence and poise she stands with.

The next day she’ll realize that woman was in fact her mother, though she still won’t have a clue about her father or half-sister. But that’s okay, because the reader gets the satisfaction of knowing all the things she doesn’t, gets to be omniscient, like the Lord, which is precisely the pleasure a novel offers.


A Sympathetic Nazi: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

Techniques tracked:
-alternating threads of past and present to maximize tension
-making Nazis sympathetic
-plotting with objects


Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and surprise bestseller All The Light We Cannot See (2014) is divided into parts that induce tension similarly to the mode previously observed in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days–alternating threads of past and present so that the reader knows early on about something major that happens later in the linear timeline. In this mode, the tension resides not in what will happen, but in discovering how it happened. The book is divided into Parts that alternate along this timeline, with the Parts composed of Chapters so brief and to the point they might more accurately be described as vignettes. These chapters alternate between Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories, with the occasional plot-important outside player thrown in for good measure. Even if you haven’t read a plot-summarizing book blurb, this structure lets you know implicitly that the narrative is taking us to the moment Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories intersect. It’s our anticipation of this moment that keeps us turning pages.

Now for the summary of these interlocking parts, in which the acute tension is what will happen in the immediate aftermath of the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo, while the chronic tension is what led these particular characters to be in Saint-Malo the moment the bombs hit:

Part Zero opens in 1944, when the coastal French city of Saint-Malo, one of the last German strongholds, is about to be bombed. The fifteen-year old French Marie-Laure, blind and unable to read the leaflets warning townspeople to evacuate, waits in a house in the city. Not far away, the young German soldier Werner retreats into the basement of the Hotel of Bees, which the Germans have taken over as an outpost. After introducing us to our principle characters and setting, Part Zero ends the moment the bombs are dropped.

Part One takes us back ten years to 1934, giving us the childhoods of Marie-Laure, in Paris where her father is the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and of Werner, who lives in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in the German coal-mining town of Zollverein. Marie-Laure becomes enthralled with Jules Verne, while Werner teaches himself about radios after recovering and repairing a busted one from a trashpile. At the museum one day, Marie-Laure hears the legend of the diamond known as the Sea of Flames, rumored to keep its possessor alive indefinitely–at the price of killing all their loved ones. Werner and Jutta become enthralled with a Frenchman’s science broadcast they pick up on Werner’s radio. Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris as it’s about to be bombed, charged with carrying out what’s either a reproduction of or the real Sea of Flames.

Part Two picks up where Zero left off. After the bombs fall, Marie-Laure’s house is still standing, and she makes her way down to the house’s cellar carrying a model of the house her father built that contains a stone we’ve figured out by now is the Sea of Flames. Werner is trapped in the hotel basement by rubble, with no ostensible way out (in a physical situation symbolic of his larger one as a Nazi, as the following part will elaborate).

Part Three picks up where One left off. Werner’s radio smarts land him at the National Political Institutes of Education, where the atmosphere is intense and violently competitive. We meet Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a German jewel expert dying of cancer who’s determined to find the Sea of Flames to save himself. Marie-Laure and her father move in with relatives in Saint-Malo, where he starts building her a model of the city like the one she had in Paris so she can learn to find her way around, but after the Germans take over, someone misinterprets his taking notations and measurements in the streets, and he’s arrested.

Part Four picks up where Two left off; von Rumpel arrives at Marie-Laure’s house at a moment she’s left the cellar and gone upstairs to pee, and Werner struggles to survive in the hotel basement and fix the radio with the only other survivor, his fellow soldier Volkheimer.

In Part Five, picking up from Three, Frederick, Werner’s only friend at the school and perceived to be the weakest, is beaten by the other boys to the point of brain damage and leaves, while Werner incurs special favor for helping devise a radio-tracking system. Madame Manec, who lives in the Saint-Malo house with Marie-Laure, begins a resistance movement doing whatever she can to undermine the Germans, but then dies of a fever.

In Part Six, picking up from Four, Werner manages to kindle the radio in the hotel basement, while Marie-Laure accesses a secret passage to hide from van Rumpel in the house’s attic, where there’s a radio her great Uncle Etienne never turned over to the Germans.

In Part Seven, picking up from Five, Werner’s sent to war, using the radio-tracking system he helped devise to intercept and kill Russians (the giant Volkheimer does the actual killing, while Werner comes in after to salvage radio equipment). Marie-Laure and her great Uncle Etienne help send subversive radio transmissions for the resistance group. Von Rumpel locates multiple fake Seas of Flames the museum had commissioned, each bringing him closer to the real one.

In Part Eight, picking up from Six, von Rumpel remains in the house, trapping Marie-Laure in the attic with little food and no water. She eventually speaks into the radio, mentioning someone is below her in the house who will kill her and reading from Jules Verne, and Werner hears.

In Part Nine, picking up from Seven, Werner arrives in Saint-Malo, where his group is tasked with locating the culprit of the subversive radio transmissions. Everyone else happens to be asleep when Werner picks up the illegal transmission, whose transmitter so strongly reminds him of the Frenchman on the radio from his childhood that he doesn’t mention to the others what he’s heard, but does, on his own, locate the house it’s coming from. Etienne is arrested performing reconnaissance in the streets to locate German gun positions to transmit over the radio, leaving Marie-Laure alone in the house.   

Part Ten, picking up from Eight, gives us the climax: Marie-Laure finishes the Jules Verne book, and, ready for everything to be over, blasts a record over the radio, knowing the German will hear it and find her. In the hotel basement, Volkheimer hears the music, and, inspired, does what they earlier assumed would be certain suicide–throws a grenade to blast a way out. He and Werner survive the blast and escape, and Werner goes straight to the house to rescue Marie-Laure. He shoots and kills von Rumpel and learns Marie-Laure is the granddaughter of the Frenchman he used to hear on the radio. After she drops the model house containing the Sea of Flames in a sea cave off an alleyway she has the key to (she goes there to to collect snails), Werner helps her escape the city to safety, but doesn’t go any further with her for her sake, since he’s a German. At their parting, she gives him the key to the sea cave. She and the liberated Etienne go to Paris. Werner is taken as a POW by the Americans and, walking outside the bounds of the camp one day, steps on a mine, set by his own army, that kills him.

Since our alternating timelines have now intersected, the pattern must shift. Part Eleven gives us what happens to Jutta after the war, when she’s sent to Berlin to clear rubble and is raped by Russian soldiers. In Paris, Marie-Laure and Etienne try and fail to locate her father and Marie-Laure decides she wants to go to school.

Part Twelve jumps thirty years to 1974. Volkheimer, who works repairing antennae, receives a package from a veterans office with items whose owner they’re trying to find. It’s Werner’s old duffel bag, his notebook full of his questions inspired by the Frenchman’s radio broadcasts, and the model house. Volkheimer takes the items to Jutta, who then goes with her young son to Saint-Malo to try to figure out why her brother had the model house, following a trail that leads her to Marie-Laure, who works as a mollusk expert at the same museum her father did. Jutta gives the model house back to Marie-Laure, who opens it wondering if the Sea of Flames is inside, but instead finds the key to the sea cave, where the Sea of Flames is still moldering in the water. Marie-Laure says she will send the last existing recording of her grandfather the Frenchman’s radio broadcasts to Jutta’s son.

Part Thirteen jumps to 2014 and gives us a single chapter of Marie-Laure with her grandson, thinking about the increase in electromagnetic waves over her lifetime, and that the souls of the dead, including Werner’s and her father’s, invisibly clot the air in a similar way.  

Let’s just be clear what Doerr’s done here: he’s made us wholeheartedly sympathize with a Nazi. Even when Werner is going along with what everyone else is doing, he’s sympathetic precisely because he knows he shouldn’t go along, but isn’t strong enough to resist. His foil is Frederick, who, though deemed the weakest by the group, registers small refusals like dumping out the bucket of ice water they’re supposed to toss on a prisoner. He does what Werner cannot, and pays the price for it, suffering lifelong brain damage; though in the end Werner pays the price of his life, it’s debatable which price is higher, viscerally demonstrating the characters’ rock-in-a-hard place position. Doerr places us in Werner’s shoes with such vivid detail we understand that in his position, we likely would not have been able to act differently, would have acted, as he did, out of fear.

A particularly vivid moment in Werner’s trajectory is when he’s still at the orphanage and a Nazi soldier comes by to seek him out–Werner is immediately terrified the soldier has come because he knows about the radio he and his sister have that they aren’t supposed to, but it turns out he just wants Werner to repair a radio of his. It is, of course, a nicer radio than Werner has ever seen. This is the first hint that going along with and being a part of the Nazi regime will offer certain advantages, but Doerr goes a step further, emphasizing the advantage with the use of another object: after Werner succeeds in fixing the soldier’s radio, he’s rewarded with cake:

Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. “Cream is forbidden. I know. But”—he puts a forefinger to his lips—“there are ways around such things. Go on.”

Werner takes a piece. Powdered sugar cascades down his chin.

Note that Doerr doesn’t actually describe the moment Werner bites into the cake; we know he has bitten into it from the powder on his chin, so that a sentence explicitly describing the bite becomes extraneous. This is a moment where the implied rewards of the regime are made abundantly clear, but Doerr goes another step further by juxtaposing it with the bareness of Werner’s current life. When he gets back to the orphanage, things seem a little different:

In the kitchen, everything looks coal-stained and cramped. Frau Elena brings a plate; on it sits a single boiled potato cut in two.

Here we have an example of a “bloody potato,” the use of symbolism described in a previous post, and we see that the potato doesn’t necessarily have to be bloody to absorb meaning; in this instance, the juxtaposition with the decadent cake lends it its meaning. The boiled potato is everything bland about Werner’s current circumstances, while the cake represents the alluring (if dangerously decadent) opportunities available in the Nazi regime. The reader can feel the conundrum viscerally on this level–until this point, we might not have been able to fathom how someone could choose to enter such a regime, knowing what we do through the clarity of hindsight, but we all know that cream-topped cake is preferable to a boiled potato–the choice between these two things is a no-brainer, just as Werner’s is to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school. It’s that, or die in the mines like his father.

Of course, Werner redeems himself by betraying his unit and saving Marie-Laure. The climax is satisfying on several levels. When Marie-Laure decides she’s tired of waiting in the attic and finally blasts the music over the radio, it inspires Volkheimer, whose love of music has been a characteristic mentioned a few times–seemingly in passing as a way of showing us there’s another side to this brute giant–to go ahead and throw a grenade to get them out of the basement. The instrument that’s threatened Marie-Laure’s survival turns out to be what ensures it. This is what my teacher Chitra Divakaruni meant when she said every detail a writer includes should be doing at least two things: Volkheimer’s love of music doesn’t just make him human, but becomes integral to the plot. Werner’s listening to the Frenchman on the radio characterizes him as a dreamer, and also becomes equally integral to the plot, the reason he seeks out Marie-Laure’s house and knows exactly where it is when the time comes, the reason he betrays his country for strangers.

Werner’s death following so quickly on the heels of the climax reveals that he’s essentially a prop to enable Marie-Laure’s survival (though he’s also more than that–he’s the sympathetic Nazi). If Hollywood adapts this, there’s a high likelihood they’ll let Werner live and give him and Marie-Laure a happily ever after. The characters have been through so much at this point, even I probably would have forgiven Doerr for letting them have that much. But Werner’s purpose in the narrative is to save Marie-Laure. Everything in his life (and in the novel) is leading to this particular point. Once he’s fulfilled his purpose, narratively speaking, he’s no longer necessary. This may sound harsh, but fortunately it’s got verisimilitude to the whole harsh reality thing: Werner’s sacrifice is symbolic of all that’s sacrificed in war, where there are no happy endings. Though there’s still hope, as on some level Werner’s fulfilling his purpose could be construed as happy:

“You have minds,” Bastian murmurs one evening in the refectory, each boy hunching almost imperceptibly farther over his food as the commandant’s finger grazes the back of his uniform. “But minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.”

Later, Werner recalls this when he first emerges from the Hotel of Bees’ basement after the grenade blast, before he heads for Marie-Laure’s:

They said what he needed was certainty. Purpose. Clarity. That pigeon-chested commandant Bastian with his grandmother’s walk; he said they would strip the hesitation out of him.

And they do. But not in the service of what they had hoped.

The entire plot is sewn together by objects. The most prevalent example is the Sea of Flames uniting the major players in the climax, where Werner saves Marie-Laure not from some random soldier who wants to do her harm for some random reason, but from someone looking for something very specific. (That what he’s looking for will save himself while destroying everyone around him is, as noted, an apt symbol of war itself, and what the Germans were looking for in waging it.) Without the Sea of Flames, this plot doesn’t exist. Many plots are driven into motion by characters wanting something, but in Doerr’s it’s not the main characters who are doing the wanting, but rather navigating the external forces generated by others’ wanting (on the level of both the Sea of Flames and the war itself).

Another critical object is the radio, without which Werner cannot hear Marie-Laure’s help and go to save her. Werner’s own development is marked by his access to increasingly nice radio equipment, until the climax, where he encounters the powerful one that was on the other end of the shabby one in his childhood. Doerr also provides a cathartic resolution via objects when Volkheimer is mailed the model house that he then gives to Jutta that she then returns to Marie-Laure. The reader wonders if the house will contain the Sea of Flames, which would mean Werner had fished it out of the water where Marie-Laure left it. Instead, in the house is the key to the cave where the Sea of Flames still resides (as omniscience conveys). Werner loved her enough to return for a keepsake (the house); that he rejects real value for sentimental conveys the depth of his love, further heightening the tragedy.