“The Singer Steps Out”: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

DoerrWhen 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 AtlasDucks, 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.

doerr2I 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.doerr

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.”

“The Air a Library”: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

doerrMarie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves travelling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived — maybe a million times more. . . . And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

All the Light We Cannot See makes me resent the way our book reviewing culture has cheapened words like “luminous,” “lyrical,” “evocative,” “poignant” — because All the Light We Cannot is all these things, and yet to describe it this way sounds like succumbing to cliches. Its story — which also risks sounding hackneyed — is simple in outline, and in conception: two young people on either side of an inhumane war, the counterpoint of their stories resisting its reductive cruelties by its tender attention to their humanity. Does that sound a little too easy, perhaps, a little too predictable? Do we need another novel telling us that war is horror, that people are capable of great evil but also of moments of transcendent courage or kindness, that literature is both an escape and an illumination — that listening can lead to either betrayal or love? Do we need to learn, again, the lesson that everyone has a story, and that in ways we cannot always see, those stories are always in some way connected?

Yes, is my answer after finishing this beautiful book. There are other things novels can do, but one of the things they do best is explore the infinite variety of human life, imagining its possibilities and shaping them into forms that will touch and surprise us. For me, Doerr’s novel did exactly this. I read it with rapt interest, and also with mounting suspense as the story moved forward through a series of short, delicately calibrated parts that might, in other hands, have seemed mannered in their very brevity. Doerr balances the kind of lyrical sensibility shown in the passage above (reminiscent for me of Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow) with restrained understatement that gives us room to feel for ourselves. We come to know the main characters — the blind, curious French girl Marie-Laure, and the young German radio engineer Werner Pfennig — by following them from their childhoods to the climactic siege of Saint-Malo, where the novel actually begins. The novel moves between that terrifying present and a past that helps us understand not just the literal movements that set up the final crisis but the subtler forces that have shaped them — Werner especially — into people who act as they finally do.

Marie-Laure is maybe a bit too good to be true, though there’s a deliberate fairy-tale dimension to the novel, which comes complete with ogres and piratical villains (in this case a monomaniacal German officer in pursuit of a fantastic jewel) that encourages us to read it outside the rules of strict realism. She does not change or grow but remains steadfast; while she does in the end need rescuing, it’s her courage and, ultimately, defiance that make her escape possible. Her quest is not for self-knowledge but for trust.

Werner is a more complex and thus interesting character. Doerr avoids the temptation to make him a hapless victim, an innocent cog in the Nazi war machine. Instead, as he gradually and almost belatedly realizes, Werner allows himself to repress the full implications of his actions as his passion for radios is perverted. He loves the technology because it connects him to other people; he ends up using it to calculate their destruction. He comforts himself with the refrain “It’s only numbers,” but of course it isn’t. Against his moral passivity we have the example of his school friend Frederick, nearsighted, unheroic, bird-loving, who said “I will not“; Werner “stood by as the consequences came raining down.”

As Marie-Laure’s literal blindness connects metaphorically to the novel’s exploration of what we see, Werner’s radio waves come to signify the possibilities of connections across distance, time, and enmity. Are these elements too pat? I didn’t think so: any lover of Bleak House is likely to appreciate, rather than disdain, a novel built around multiple refractions of the same idea, not to mention plots that turn on convergences that defy probability to insist on their symbolic and moral meaning. Dickens’s fog is visible, but as Doerr’s elegaic conclusion invites us to recognize, our world is united by invisible elements that we can use either for or against each other. Like Dickens, he commits wholeheartedly to fiction’s capacity for fancy as well as feeling. Though the story he tells is a sad and often painful one, the way he tells it seems to me not just artful but incorrigibly hopeful. What a readerly treat.