All The Lights is a collection of short stories. There are plenty of them (15). There are no overt connections between the stories, but plenty of covert ones. These covert links have the effect of sparking associations in the reader’s mind: did this character crop up in another tale? Haven’t I read this somewhere else in the book? The book’s title, for example, is a phrase that recurs with regularity across many, if not all of the stories, and every time you come across this phrase it helps to construct a network of communality between apparently diverse episodes. (This might be even more apparent in the original, it’s hard to tell, although it should be noted that the translation by Katie Derbyshire is excellent.)
The stories are all set in the Eastern side of a reunified Germany, the former DDR. As such, they are the haunted tales of history’s losers, in one way or another. Even the foreigners who appear, including a Dutch boxer, are losers. They are the ones who history will not celebrate, whose stories are never going to be more than bittersweet. Which is not to say there is no light in the book, or that it’s remorselessly grim; just that there’s an aura of lost possibilities, of the unfulfilled dream. The shadow of the West.
Under this umbrella, the author constructs elegant portraits of the little people trying to make their way. The immigrants, the warehouse workers, the salesmen. There’s a touch of Carver in all this, but there’s also a flavour of Cortazar in the way Meyer elides time. Like Cortazar he is not afraid of skipping backwards and forwards within the timeline of the story. The effect is disorientating, in the same way in which life can be disorientating. The present and the past and the future collide head-on in a single paragraph. This demands an assurance and skill from the writing; Meyer is not afraid to lead the reader to the border of incomprehension before reeling them back again to the through line of the narrative. Again, this frequently reflects the state of his subjects, people who don’t feel in control of their destiny, who never know if they’re about to fall off a cliff or get knocked out, but battle on regardless.
[As an aside, in Berlin last weekend, we visited the “DDR Museum”, a place which in the end I found unbearably sad. All the hope (all the lights) of a utopian dream reduced to rubble, steamrollered by the capitalist machine and corruption. In the museum people smirk at the Trabant or the mono-politics. It’s all but forgotten that beneath the surface there was once the dream of a more egalitarian and less materialistic society.]