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Anthony Doerr's New Novel Spans Centuries, Yet Fits Together Like Clockwork

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

In 15th century Constantinople, a young girl scales the high walls of an abandoned monastery said to be haunted by spirits who carry their chamberlain through the broken halls on a throne made of bones.

In the 1940s, in Lakeport, Idaho, a boy follows his father to a new job, a new life and, eventually, a new war.

In 2020, a troubled teenager sits in his car outside the Lakeport public library, a gun in his pocket, a bomb in the backpack beside him.

In 2146, mission year 65 of the Argos — a generation ship headed for a new home on Beta Oph2 — a girl arranges scraps of paper on the floor inside a sealed room. She has been inside for 300-some days, her only company an artificial intelligence called Sybil who contains the sum total of all mankind's knowledge.

These are the points of the loom on which Anthony Doerr weaves his newest book, Cloud Cuckoo Land — a tapestry that stretches across centuries, linking the lives of these characters through words, stories, libraries and, most notably, an invented manuscript (for which the novel is named) written by the very real ancient Greek author Antonius Diogenes.

In Constantinople, Anna is a failure as a seamstress, but learns to read ancient Greek from a dying tutor to rich children in exchange for stolen wine and bread. She spends her nights thieving, her days in a monastery with her sister. She meets a group of Italian scholars looking for ancient manuscripts, grave-robbing the city ahead of the war that is coming. Outside the walls, there is a boy, Omeir, with a cleft palate and a deep connection to his two massive oxen, Moonlight and Tree. He has been conscripted into the Sultan's army besieging the city but will, months later, find Anna among those who've fled.

In the 1950's, Zeno Ninis, the boy in Lakeport, lost his father in WWII and goes himself to fight in the Korean War. He is captured, survives, ends up translating the Diogenes manuscript and, decades later, working in the library of his hometown, he helps a group of schoolchildren stage "Cloud Cuckoo Land" as a play. It is the night of the dress rehearsal that Seymour, the ecoterrorist, brings his bomb to the library, thinking it deserted, hoping only to damage or destroy the model home and offices of a real estate development company next door.

Doerr does amazing things with his story, with this narrative spread unevenly across such disparate characters, such different voices. He makes links that persist across centuries, flits from place to place and person to person with an enviable grace, making seemingly impossible logical and temporal leaps seem as natural as breath. Between the covers, across hundreds of pages, he has everything — birth and death, love and war, heists, escapes, the particular (though not unique) perils of growing up in 1453, 1940, 2020 and 2146. He breaks the story into a thousand pieces, then spends every page carefully putting it all back in order again.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book that is in love with nature and with libraries, that disdains advancement and yet embraces technology (to read his descriptions of the construction of a massive cannon outside the walls of Constantinople or the experience of virtual reality aboard a space-ark a century from now are masterpieces of worldbuilding and wonder). For his central, eponymous hook, Doerr invents what is a ridiculous, Big Rock Candy Mountain kind of ancient Greek yarn about a dim shepherd named Aethon who hears a story of an imaginary city in the sky where there is no pain or hunger or suffering and believes it real; who is turned into a donkey, a fish and an owl in his pursuit of this place — each echoing the lives of those characters whose stories intersect across the centuries, whose lives are shaped by Diogenes's comic tale.

The book is a puzzle. The greatest joy in it comes from watching the pieces snap into place. It is an epic of the quietest kind, whispering across 600 years in a voice no louder than a librarian's.

Doerr does not overstate the importance of the story-within-a-story. If anything, he makes a point of reminding us again and again how easy it is for books to be lost across the ages — the staggering number of histories, tales, songs, account books, speeches, poems and stories that never made it through the meatgrinder of history. Diogenes' "Cloud Cuckoo Land" survived by luck, by chance, through sacrifice and dedication. There are no heroes or villains, no global plots, no secret societies bent on controlling this lost manuscript. There's just a book thief, a boy and his ox, a messed-up kid who lost his best friend, a man putting on a children's play, a girl talking to a supercomputer.

The book is a puzzle. The greatest joy in it comes from watching the pieces snap into place. It is an epic of the quietest kind, whispering across 600 years in a voice no louder than a librarian's. It is a book about books, a story about stories. It is tragedy and comedy and myth and fable and a warning and a comfort all at the same time. It says, Life is hard. Everyone believes the world is ending all the time. But so far, all of them have been wrong.

It says that if stories can survive, maybe we can, too.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He's the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.