Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” is immense.
Immense in its ambition. Immense in its scope. Immense in its length (622 pages). Immense in its beauty. Immense in its frustration.
Doerr has melded five, tangentially connected, novellas into one gigantic tome. A listing of story locations and event dates shows the vastness of Doerr’s epic tale:
• Idaho — 1941 through 2062.
• Constantinople — 1439 through 1453.
• Korea — 1951 through 1952.
• Outer Space — 65 years (dates not determined)
• Ancient Greece — Antiquity.
The five main locations produce five main characters whose, seemingly, only commonality is that they once inhabited Earth.
Zeno is an octogenarian retiree putting on a play with children in Idaho in 2020.
Anna is a young, orphaned seamstress in Constantinople in 1439.
Seymour is an “on the spectrum” teen loner struggling in Idaho in 2020.
Omeir is a young boy with a cleft palate helping his family on a Bulgarian farm in 1439.
Konstance is a 14-year-old girl traveling through space in a modular capsule. Time unknown.
Underneath this huge umbrella of literary space, Doerr has room to explore many diverse themes. He conjures up the power of libraries from Ancient Greece to virtual libraries hurling through the galaxy on space missions. Books are a driving narrative of Doerr’s work. The thread which loosely binds the disparate plots is a rescued, moldy, barely translatable Greek book called “Cloud Cuckoo Land” supposedly written 1,800 plus years ago.
Lurching from present time to the distant past, the book examines environmental destruction, the recruitment of disillusioned, damaged souls for acts of terrorism, the wages of war and the rapid encroachment of technology on society.
Despite these seemingly doomsday scenarios, Doerr’s main message is the futility of always searching for a better place. One of the last chapters is titled, “What You Already Have is Better Than What You So Desperately Seek.”
While the themes appear downbeat, the presentation of them is luminous. The author is extremely gifted. Here is a scene of Anna meeting an accomplice, Himerius, at a harbor.
“Snow fall, freezes, melts and an icy fog shrouds the city. Anna hurries through the courtyard and down the harbor and finds Himerius shivering beside his skiff. Ice glazes the wales and oar shafts and glistens the creases of his sleeves and on the chains of the few merchant ships still at anchor in the harbor. He sets a brazier in the bottom of the boat, lights a piece of charcoal, and runs out the fishing lines, and Anna takes a melancholic pleasure in watching sparks lift into the fog and melt away behind them.”
Doerr’s prior novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” published in 2014, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 200 weeks and won the Pulitzer Price for fiction in 2015. While “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” published in 2021, has been mostly well received, it has not reached the exalted status of its predecessor. “All The Light We Cannot See,” also lengthy, has just two main characters and while it also does not play out chronologically, it is less convoluted than “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Doerr, as masterful as he is, may have added one too many objects in his juggling act.
It may be possible for a reader to feel immense relief upon finishing the story and immense sadness that it is over.