bookmark_borderSpecificity in All the Light We Cannot See

But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

That’s one of Jack Kerouac’s most famous snippets of writing. It has nearly 11,000 likes on Goodreads, and it even made it nearly word-for-word onto the On the Road film adaptation. If you’ve read On the Road, you’d recognize it instantly. These are the words Sal Paradise muses on as he watches his friends Dean and Carlo “[dancing] down the streets [of New York]” enraptured by tales of sex and adventure to be had in the mythologized American West.

On the Road was one of my favorite books for the longest time. I found the prose energizing and the characters memorable.

Here’s a different quote from what might be my new favorite book:

The locksmith tells himself that the diamond he carries is not real. There is no way the director would knowingly give a tradesman a one-hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond and let him walk out of Paris with it. And yet as he stares at it, he cannot keep his thoughts from the question: Could it be? He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I don’t think this excerpt gets as much attention, but it’s so much more powerful than any passage I’ve read in On the Road. In this scene, a locksmith and his blind daughter rest for the night in a deserted farm field west of Versailles, France, where German occupation has forced residents to evacuate their homes. The locksmith is tasked with safekeeping one of three lookalikes of a highly-sought-after and potentially cursed diamond. As far as he knows, any of the lookalikes including his could be the real diamond. And this is what he thinks to himself.

I think these two excerpts make for a great comparison because they both are internal monologues, they are both motivations for the main character to leave their homes and embark on a journey, and they both deal with the central themes of their respective works.

But Doerr’s quote deals with so much more. Here’s everything tied up in it:

  • Father-daughter relationship
  • Class hierarchy
  • Duty to protect (both his blind daughter and the diamond)
  • The night sky as a calming, introspective force.
  • Fear

And by comparison, here’s (at most) what we can glean from Kerouac:

  • Longing for mythologized adventure
  • The desire to be unique and not “commonplace”
  • Fireworks as awe-inspiring and the night sky as a backdrop

If you were to jot down bullet points for a book you wanted to write, the former already carries themes that would be heartwrenching and impactful in their own right. The latter feels naïve by comparison.

At least in my opinion.

I don’t mean to suggest that books which deal with darker themes like warfare are inherently better stories. What Doerr is a master at is specificity. And for more on why specifcity is the key to great storytelling, I really recommend Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast The King of Tears.

In almost the same number of words, Doerr draws on much more powerful descriptors and uses contrasting elements to carry the narrative. The darkness is falling like velvet. Trees, sky, hay. These words don’t expend 30 lines painting the scene in extraneous detail like Faulkner, but they give you exactly what you need to know to mentally visualize the calm setting. And then phrases like “tells himself”, “no way”, “scans”, “inside his own mind: a knot”. It’s so subtle, but this diction helps the reader contrast the inner mental turmoil and exhaustion of the locksmith with the serenity of the wartime night sky.

I’m a huge fan of All the Light We Cannot See, and I think it’s an incredibly worthwhile book to read to understand good storytelling.