Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Wednesday, April 28, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Cloud Cuckoo Land

Scribner Book Company: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Scribner Book Company: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Scribner Book Company: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Scribner Book Company: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr's highly anticipated follow-up to All the Light We Cannot See, begins in what previous devotees might consider an unlikely time and place: a spaceship partway through a vast interstellar journey to colonize a new planet. In this ambitious, sprawling novel about the necessity of storytelling for people on the edge of catastrophe, Doerr introduces a dizzying array of characters and settings, from Konstance, a 14-year-old passenger on the aforementioned spaceship, the Argos, to young Anna and Omeir, who find themselves on opposing sides during the 1453 siege of Constantinople. Zeno and Seymour are at the center of a kind of modern-day siege in the present, though Doerr also captures their lives long before and after their pivotal confrontation. The characters are connected by the crises they face, which are both personal and civilization-wide, and by their shared appreciation for "Cloud Cuckoo Land," an ancient, fictional tragicomic Greek text about the persistent human drive to escape suffering and find somewhere better.

Except for Konstance, the characters are paired--Anna and Omeir in the 15th century, Seymour and Zeno in the present day--and meet at moments of violent disaster. Anna's already precarious, impoverished life in Constantinople is further threatened by the arrival of Muslim soldiers putting the city to siege, while Omeir and his pack animals are dragooned into service by the Sultan's forces. Cloud Cuckoo Land possesses a fable-like quality, sometimes skipping through characters' lives in a few pages, in a manner reminiscent of the briskly paced but sweeping scope of the titular Greek text. Thus, we are elegantly brought up to speed on Omeir's miraculous survival as a child maligned for his facial deformity and Anna's unlikely adventures smuggling books out of a crumbling building before the siege begins. Doerr's storytelling abilities--and the book's fable-like elements--come to the fore as the siege approaches and Anna and Omeir observe a conflict so large it is almost beyond their comprehension. Doerr describes the impact of an enormous cannon:

"It's as though the finger of God reaches down through the clouds and flicks the planet out of orbit. The thousand-pound stone ball moves too fast to see: there is only the roar of its passage lacerating the air as it screams over the field past Omeir--but before the sound has even begun to register in his consciousness, a tree at the opposite end of the field shatters. A second tree a quarter mile farther also vaporizes, seemingly simultaneously, and for a heartbeat he wonders if the ball will travel forever, beyond the horizon, smashing through tree after tree, wall after wall, until it flies off the edge of the world."

The apocalyptic air created by the siege and the impending sack of Constantinople is echoed in the present by Seymour's growing obsession with ecological catastrophe. Raised in poverty by his mother, as a boy Seymour finds his unusual tendency toward sensory overload soothed by frequent trips into the forest behind his home. When the forest is leveled by developers, Seymour's grief morphs into rage at the toll humanity is taking on the planet. Doerr realistically portrays Seymour's gradual radicalization, eventually resulting in a violent stand-off at a library where Zeno is putting on a play adaptation of "Cloud Cuckoo Land." Doerr does not dismiss Seymour's apocalyptic concerns as overblown--ecological destruction and climate change are treated as very real concerns--but he does use Seymour to illustrate how personal suffering and despair at the state of things threaten to close us off from the parts of our world that are beautiful and precious.

Through it all runs "Cloud Cuckoo Land" itself, long passages of which are quoted in between chapters. On the surface, the story is a relatively light one, tracking one man's humorous search for utopia, during which he suffers multiple indignities, including being transformed into a donkey. The characters discover the story of Aethon's quest in a variety of ways, but it serves for each of them as both a necessary distraction from the suffering around them and an insight into their own search for a place free from pain. Aethon is treated as a fool by many, but his quest for greener pastures is one that recurs in different forms over millennia, from Konstance and the other passengers' search for an unspoiled exoplanet to Zeno's need for a way out of his circumscribed life. Doerr suggests that while this impulse is an understandable human response, it can also stand in the way of appreciating what we already have. There are no utopias over the next horizon, but we do have stories, the miracles of nature, and each other.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is ultimately an optimistic novel about humanity's tendency to teeter on the edge of nothingness. It suggests that the harm people do does not and will not overwhelm their capacity for kindness and bravery. And in Doerr's kaleidoscopic slides between characters and time periods, it argues that stories have the power to bind us together over millennia. For stories to do that necessary work, we must keep them alive with the same dedication as Doerr's characters preserving the fragments of "Cloud Cuckoo Land" against the ravages of time and forgetfulness. --Hank Stephenson

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 656p., 9781982168438, September 28, 2021

Scribner Book Company: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr: A Technicolor Terminus with Its Own Rules

(photo: Ulf Andersen)

Anthony Doerr is the author of the novels About Grace and the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See; the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall; and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. All the Light We Cannot See, which spent over 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is being adapted as a limited series by Netflix. Doerr's new novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, September 28, 2021) shifts among characters in vastly different historical settings, from the 15th-century siege of Constantinople to an interstellar voyage in the far future. The characters are united by their connections to the fictive ancient Greek text "Cloud Cuckoo Land."

When I spoke to Nan Graham [senior v-p and publisher at Scribner], she indicated that Cloud Cuckoo Land originally revolved around the siege of Constantinople. How did the other characters and time periods come to be a part of the novel?

Yep, Nan is right: at first, I got obsessed reading about the confluence of disruptive technologies in the 15th century, when the printing press, compass and gunpowder all showed up in Europe around roughly the same time. Gunpowder (and the mega-cannons it inspired) helped the Ottomans breach the massive defensive walls of Constantinople, which had turned back every invading army for over 1,000 years.

But I didn't locate that spark--that bright vein you tap into where you know you've found something that can sustain a long project--until I started learning about Byzantine book culture. Thousands of ancient Greek and Roman texts only survived the Middle Ages because they were protected in libraries inside Constantinople's walls.

Because writing, as the 11th-century Iranian scholar Al-Biruni put it, is "a being propagating itself in time and space," it wasn't until I started trying to dramatize how a single copy of an ancient text tumbles through time and space that the project of Cloud Cuckoo Land began to take on real momentum.

That's when the five protagonists--Anna, Omeir, Zeno, Seymour and Konstance--came in. I wanted to show the book ricocheting through time, like a ball tripping through the pegs of one of those Plinko boards on The Price Is Right. The book comes into each character's life at a point when he or she needs it most, and so, for a time, they become its guardian, until it's time to pass the story along again.

The novel feels especially concerned with imminent disaster, whether it be the destruction of Constantinople or the ravages posed by climate change. Why did that become a recurring theme?

Well, there's an argument to be made that nearly every generation in nearly every culture has believed at some point that they were living at the end of humanity. Certainly that was the case for the Byzantines around Anna inside Constantinople in 1453: many of them came to believe that the fall of the city meant the end of human civilization.

And if, like teenaged Seymour, you spend a lot of time reading about climate change--and witnessing the lack of urgency with which we're responding to its challenges--it's hard not to feel like you're living at the end of something now.

That doesn't mean this is a hopeless novel: I hope that it's the opposite! I hope that it's about the ability of so-called "ordinary" people to act with immense courage, to transcend their own predicaments and make a difference for the people who will follow them.

In some ways, the characters' apocalyptic concerns feel especially relevant to recent political turmoil and the ravages of Covid. Have any of these events--or the unsettling atmosphere--changed how you view the themes of your book?

I'm not sure my attitudes about the project changed over time as much as they became more urgent. The seven years since I published All the Light We Cannot See have been the warmest seven years on record, and writers like David Quammen have been warning us about diseases spilling over from animal populations for longer than that. I started this book right around the time then-candidate Donald Trump said, "I believe in clean air. Immaculate air.... But I don't believe in climate change," and I finished it during a worldwide pandemic when wildfire smoke was so thick outside our windows that it was unhealthy for my kids to play outside. So, if anything, some of the book's darker preoccupations felt more and more insistent with each passing day.

How did you go about constructing the text in a way that felt period-accurate?

In a novel that moves from 15th-century Byzantium to 1950s Korea to a spaceship in the future, each time period presents its own challenges, of course. But that's the stuff I love to do and am so lucky to get to do: chasing curiosities, clunking around in libraries, looking into chroniclers' accounts, reading futurists and pessimists, historians and novelists. I'm a miniaturist at heart, so collecting the details and masoning them into sentences is my favorite part.

The characters repeatedly return to "Cloud Cuckoo Land," which can serve as a balm for them in times of great distress. Is there a particular text that serves a similar purpose for you?

Any good book can in itself serve as a Cloud Cuckoo Land--a Technicolor terminus with its own rules that exists only in our minds. That those worlds sometimes feel more real and vivid than our real world--that's the true magic of reading, writing and storytelling. The texts of so many writers serve that purpose for me: Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle, Marguerite Yourcenar.... In terms of this novel, I found myself often going back to the Odyssey and the Iliad. Yes, they are books from an alien time, full of violence and strangeness, but then you come across a Homeric simile like this one, when a child soldier dies a pointless death:

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion's head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.
    (Book 8, lines 349-53)

You hear the voice of a bard 3,000 years gone reach through time, link life--a bright, blooming poppy--with death, and it moves you; you feel recognized; you feel less alone.

The book can be read as a paean to storytelling. Do you think there are ways in which even dedicated readers undervalue the importance of storytelling and what it can accomplish?

As far as we know, storytelling is the one thing our species can do that others can't. And look what we've done with it! We've constructed empires, built global religions, cut through continents, fished out oceans, performed symphonies over Zoom. Books are astonishing pieces of technology, able to transcend space, time, and death, and those of us who are lucky enough to read them are so privileged to get to spend some hours of our days entering other lives, other worlds, other histories.

Apparently, Machiavelli, before he'd begin an evening of reading the classics, would take off his dirty clothes from the day, put on his finest duds and, in his words, "for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world." Sometimes I feel that's how I should approach every hour that I'm lucky enough to spend with books: with that sort of reverence. --Hank Stephenson

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