In the weeks before its 2014 publication, Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” nailed starred reviews in trade journals such as Publishers Weekly and Booklist, inspired hosannas from independent booksellers, and racked up pre-orders on Amazon. But no one could have predicted the phenomenon the lauded novel eventually became: a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it burrowed into the New York Times hardcover list for over two years, selling millions of copies.
So how does Doerr follow up a once-in-a-generation achievement? “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” his erudite, exuberant new work, taps all his gifts while moving in a bold, fresh direction. If “All the Light We Cannot See” was a lyrical tour de force, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a David Mitchell-esque maze of interlocking stories and characters in three different timestreams, past, present, and future. Doerr’s reach is galactic, but there’s also a surprising intimacy here, as the elements orbit around a Greek text that has all but vanished.
“Cloud Cuckoo Land” defies a pat summary, but here goes. It’s early 2020, just before the pandemic screeches the world to a halt. We’re in a library in Lakeport, Idaho. Upstairs a cast of schoolchildren rehearse “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” in which Aethon, a dimwitted shepherd, searches for a celestial city of birds, perched in the dome of the sky. Among the shelves downstairs, a more urgent plot unfolds, as Seymour, a neurodivergent young man, plants a bomb in retaliation for literal crimes against nature, targeting the office of a real estate developer that has ravaged the woods and hills outside of town. Zeno, an elderly Korean War veteran and the text’s translator, guards the children while figuring out what to do.
Back in the 15th century a teenager, Omeir, is conscripted into the Muslim assault on Constantinople while inside the metropolis’s walls. Anna, an ophaned adolescent, pores over a goatskin codex that recounts Aethon’s adventures. Sequestered with her sickly sister inside a nunnery of seamstresses, Anna yearns to break free; under the tutelage of an ailing scholar she learns to read ancient Greek, liberating her imagination. And centuries in the future, Konstance, born on a starship hurtling away from a toxic Earth, seeks solace in Aethon’s story; an interface technology allows her to slip in and out of a virtual library that contains all known information about the home planet.”
In a big fiction year — and make no mistake, 2021 has been epic — “Cloud Cuckoo Land” stands out. The trope of the child in jeopardy is hardly original, but Doerr digs deep: Seymour has been ostracized for his behavioral tics, Omeir for his cleft palate, Anna for her rebelliousness, and Konstance for her curiosity. Zeno, too, has struggled, repressing his desire for men. Doerr guides us through lavish backstories and broken hearts, war and peace, each chapter a masterstroke. That he borrows a lullaby tone from fantasy tales — there are allusions to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, WALL*E, even Dr. Who’s “Silence in the Library” — is no coincidence. Beneath its veneer of whimsy, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is making a dead serious argument about the grand adventure of reading, which usually commences in childhood.
Layer by layer, Doerr builds a cathedral of a novel, rich with naves and transepts and soaring stained-glass windows, and yet he keeps us close to the pages, turning and turning. An intricate design emerges: Doerr’s a soothsayer obsessed with our survival, fearing the worst. It’s not hyperbolic to claim, as he implicitly does here, that climate change and the collapse of civilizations pose threats beyond our comprehension, let alone our control. In Idaho Seymour (see more) mulls signs of apocalypse: “Some nights, Eden’s Gate glowing beyond his bedroom curtain, he can almost hear dozens of colossal feedback loops churning all over the planet, rasping and grinding like great invisible millwheels in the sky.”
Dark stuff, yes, but as in all Doerr’s work, a profound compassion undergirds the novel as the pieces snap into place. The owl, associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom, is the key motif that picks the narrative’s locks. Doerr’s characters are astoundingly resilient, suggesting that we may yet save ourselves, with literature an essential tool. Their journeys leave footprints across our hearts.
With its breathtaking ambition and beautiful prose “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is the anti-Twitter novel we need, unabashedly celebrating the power of books and their caretakers. Besieged by the sultan’s forces, Anna drifts away on the back of her codex: “When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into story, as though climbing the wall of the priory on the rock — handhold here, foothold there — the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place.” Aethon, then, is a metaphor for the reader in our time, a fellow traveler with eyes lifted upward, mulling the riddle of who we are in the tales we tell.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cloud Cuckoo Land
Scribner, 640 pages, $30