When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory of the rock—handhold here, foothold there—the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place. . . . Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.
Some novels are exhilarating to read because they are a kind of high-wire act—aspirational, excessive, risky. We are always aware, reading them, that the effort might not work—that they might fail, that their reach might exceed their grasp. Maybe the conceit will end up feeling too labored, or the philosophy too superficial; maybe the sough-after emotion will collapse into melodrama or bathos, or the structure will start to creak or even crack; maybe what’s on offer will prove not a daring exploit but an exploitative gimmick. Cloud Atlas, Ducks, Newburyport, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Piranesi all come to mind for me as contemporary novels of this kind; two of these I ended up, after some initial hesitation, absolutely loving; one I admired for its virtuosity but found too self-consciously showy for genuine delight; one (regular readers will know which one) I have started and abandoned in annoyance three times so far.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a literary high-wire act of this kind, and for me an unambiguously successful one. The novel is ambitious, capacious, acrobatic, and above all joyful—not in its content, but in its concept, which is celebratory even though many of its stories are tragic. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a paean to reading, but it dramatizes reading’s transformative alchemy rather than lecturing us about it; it enacts through its own readerly pleasures the magic its characters, if they are fortunate, discover for themselves. It is also an elegy for the world in which we read, which—like the precious volumes its characters treasure, decipher, and preserve—is beautiful and nurturing and heart-stoppingly vulnerable.
I won’t rehearse the details of the novel except to say (for those who haven’t encountered it or anything about it yet) that it follows a cluster of characters widely separated by time and place: in 15th-century Constantinople, a boy and a girl from two different, antagonistic worlds—both in their own way dreamers—cross paths and find fellowship; in 20th-century Idaho, the lives of an angry boy and an old man unexpectedly converge, their two forms of idealism colliding, with unintended consequences; in a remote future, young Konstance lives a surreal existence aboard a hermetically sealed spacecraft. The novel moves each plot forward a step at a time, orchestrating them with delicate precision. The novel overall is organized around fragments of a “lost” ancient text, The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, which plays a key role in each plot as well as providing imagery and inspiration for the novel as a whole.
Dealing his characters’ stories out piecemeal as Doerr does has its initial risks and disadvantages. At first, the elaborate artifice of Konstance’s world almost lost me. Then Anna and Omeir captured my heart, and my fear for Zeno grew complicated by increasing understanding for Seymour. As the connections between the plots, both literal and thematic, showed themselves more and more clearly, I ceased to find it jarring shifting between them, and the further along I got the more invested I became in everyone’s plight, and especially in the role of books and reading in carrying them through it. Like Doerr’s earlier novel All the Light We Cannot See, it is written in meticulous prose—detailed, tactile, sometimes lyrical. The final revelation about the Argos is perhaps a bit pat (though it certainly surprised me) but that was not enough to detract from the enjoyment I got out of the reading experience. Cloud Cuckoo Land was transporting for me in a way that no other book I’ve read since Owen’s death has been. I finished it with tears in my eyes, in part for the hopeful beauty of the ending and in part for the reminder the novel gave me of what reading can be.
On that note, it did occur to me as I read (maybe without reason) that the biggest risk Doerr takes is that his novel will seem to (or actually) pander to his audience. In celebrating books, the magic of the imagination, the value of libraries, and so on in a big sweeping novel, he is certainly and inevitably preaching to the choir. How could we resist a book that so perfectly reflects our own values? Of course we love it: it is about us and the things we already cherish! But does that mean that the whole project is somehow insincere? I’ve seen in stores (and read, for that matter) plenty of books that do strike me as manipulative in this way, their bookishness really little more than a marketing ploy. (It annoys me a lot when I fall for it!). I don’t think that’s the case with Cloud Cuckoo Land, not just because it is such a rich and demanding blend of erudition and creativity but because the novel itself is not ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’: it depicts a world with as much suffering and hatred in it as love and joy, in which beauty and horror, art and barbarism, coexist. The truth of our lives, as Seymour eventually realizes, “is that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”