Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr: Stories Are Timeless

They used to say that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. These days, however, it seems like when writers are out of ideas (or just want to pander to readers) they write about books, or the power of storytelling, or the importance of literature, etc., etc. I'm mostly here for it. But it's not always completely successful.

To wit, I give you this lukewarm review of Anthony Doerr's much heralded new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's, you know, fine. But it's a long, needlessly complicated, questionably structured journey to arrive at the point: Stories are timeless.

So Cloud Cuckoo Land is three stories in one, and it's like Doerr put them all in a blender and then drizzled parts of each out onto the page. There's a story told from both sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1452. There's a modern-times story of a Korean War veteran directing a play in a library and an eco-terrorist who is planning to bomb the real estate company next door. And then there's the pre-teen girl hurtling through space on a space ship several centuries in the future, presumably escaping a destroyed Earth, and along with her shipmates, hoping to restart human civilization on a distant planet.

For the first half or so of the novel, I was enthralled, and the structure of skipping back and forth between these stories, seemed to work fine. But then I got tired of it because I couldn't figure out the why. Why was it necessary that each of these stories needed to keep interrupting the others. Each story builds drama, but then we're whisked off to the others. And once we start to see their central point of converge, frankly it's a bit of a letdown. The stories seem to collapse under their own weight of expectation. 

I started this book hoping for a David Mitchell-esque display of storytelling. And the premise and structure are certainly inventive and imaginative. I just wasn't sure Doerr landed it all successfully. I'm certainly in the minority in this somewhat tepid opinion, because this has landed on many "favorites of 2021" lists. But to me, it just didn't quite deliver on what it promised.

(Side note: This book is listed at 620+ pages. It's maaaaayyyybe 450. There are tons of chapter breaks and blanks pages. And this bugged me to no end, I'm not sure why. Like the publisher wanted to make the book feel more substantial than it is.)

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