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‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ an epic work of beautiful ambition

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“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

Storytelling is baked into the human condition. Throughout the centuries, we have told one another stories intended to educate us or entertain us or simply to help us endure. They are the ties that bind us, the threads of the tapestry into which we are all woven.

Stories have power – power that drives us to preserve them, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Anthony Doerr understands that power as well as anyone. His new book is “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Scribner, $30), a segmented saga of wild ambition and staggering scope, spanning centuries as it follows a varied cast of characters through their trials and triumphs. From 15th century Constantinople to a 22nd century starship – with a few stopovers in mid-20th and early 21st century Idaho – Doerr takes us on a journey driven by the power of story. The stories we are told, yes, but also the stories we tell ourselves.

Binding all of it together? An ancient Greek text titled “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Antonius Diogenes. That tale – also an invention of Doerr’s – serves as this novel’s connective tissue, with excerpts introducing each chapter. That book’s journey within Doerr’s larger tale – lost, then found, then lost again and discovered anew – reflects the transitive nature of story; some live forever, while others disappear.

In Constantinople, we meet two young people. Anna is an orphan in the city, working alongside her sister as a seamstress. She is desperate for something more, and when she stumbles across a tutor willing to teach her, the world of words opens up for her, though fate has other plans. Omeir lives in isolation some distance from the great city. Born with a cleft palate, he and his family were driven from their village when Omeir’s grandfather refused to abandon him to the elements. But as he grows up, Omeir’s idyllic life is altered by an intrusion from the outside world.

War is coming, with both young people destined to be swept up into that harsh and brutal reality.

In the town of Lakeport, Idaho, we meet Seymour and Zeno. Seymour is a lonely and troubled young man, one who struggles with the overwhelming world around him. His only respite is a wooded glen behind his house, where he meets and bonds with an owl he calls Trustyfriend. But when development threatens that safe haven, Seymour’s attitudes veer in a darker and more dangerous direction. We first meet Zeno as an elderly man, directing a play version of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” at the local library. But as we delve deeper, we learn more of his long life, from his difficult childhood to his time at war to a late-in-life desire to learn, to do more.

The first crossover between these two brings its own kind of darkness, driven by desperate anger.

And in the future, aboard a ship on a years-long trip to colonize a new planet, we meet Konstance. She has come of age and learns a bleak truth about the mission, which would be difficult enough. But when circumstances lead her to be isolated, with only the ship’s supercomputer Sybil as a companion, she dives into the virtual world on a quest to learn more about the full story behind the mission … and about her father.

As she explores the world that was, she learns that all is not as it seems, even in the unblinking depths of space.

Tying all five of these lives together, in ways overt and subtle, is the eponymous fictional novel. All of these people have their lives impacted by this book. Their paths are influenced by not just the story itself, but by the existence of the story and its presence in the world.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” is staggeringly ambitious, a delicately-constructed and beautifully-written work. Each of these places and times – Constantinople, Idaho, deep space – and the people in them could have easily been their own story, they’re realized so richly. On an individual level, they are exceptional.

These storylines are incredible on their own. The historical agonies of Constantinople as the end of empire looms. Two similar but different journeys to manhood in a world whose expectations of masculinity prove difficult to meet. A future where sacrifice isn’t a choice, but an unasked-for responsibility.

But together, they become something so much greater, so much … more.

These shifts from past to present to future and back again should be jarring. Even with the connective device, there should be seams. And yet Doerr threads his narrative with such a light, intimate touch that these disparate elements fit together. Even as we bounce from perspective to perspective, we the reader never lose track of OUR perspective; it’s a stunning feat.

Doerr pulled the inspiration for his fictional novel-within-the-novel – including its name – from the Greek comedy “The Birds” by Aristophanes, one of many ancient writers whose body of work is forever fragmented due to the myriad ravages of time. That notion – that what we know of the world of ancient letters is defined in many ways by sheer chance – is one of the foundational underpinnings of this book.

Again, it comes back to a fascination with stories and storytelling. The idea that one story, a story that spent two thousand years being lost and found, could define so many lives – it’s a testament to how we are impacted by the tales we tell and are told. Doerr’s grasp of that power is clear, both in the story he’s telling and the manner in which he is telling it.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a masterful piece of work. It is ambitious in all the best ways, a centuries-spanning saga that is both intimate and epic, granular and grandiose. Doerr has wed past, present and future – all in service to the power of story.

“The trickiest thing is the nature of man, apparent in everything.” – Aristophanes, “The Birds”

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 12:53

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