- Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, $30.
An individual life is nothing so remarkable as a story. Life is small, and short, and full of aimless hardship. Still, each life will be somewhat alike, and inhabited by a human, capable of understanding its fellows. In some sort of chain or network, the world and history are made, peppered by the landmarks that lives have made and shared. These landmarks are stories, the receptacles of the stuff of lives, worn, warped, and shaped by time. Many stories will no longer be told, much of those we have are lost, but those that have we have remain in the writing.
This is the sentiment of Cloud Cuckoo Land, the newest novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr. One part sci-fi, two parts history, two parts contemporary drama and somewhere social commentary, it tells the story of five lives that, across time and space, are linked by text, language, and story.
At the centre of the novel is the lost manuscript of a play by Greek Philosopher, Diogenes: the eponymous "Cloud Cuckoo Land". The preservation and translation of the cryptic ancient Greek of this manuscript, invented by Doerr for the novel, forges a line between the lives of his characters; spread from 15th century Constantinople to the space-faring future.
The novel writ large is propelled by its epic scale, yet the individual pages are turned by the softer motivations of the imperfect lives of his characters. More than grand, romantic prose, it is often Doerr's plainly summoned sentiments that are beautiful. Doerr generates an absorbing and emotional investment in the urbane, realistic flows of the struggles of his cast: the tos-and-fros of their well-personified natures, and the humble failures and successes of their lifetimes, many of which we see from beginning to end.
Doerr is commendable for the distinct personhood and experience he weaves into the telling of these lives, filling them each with a unique personality. This is particularly so for the internal, social, and sensory experience of the autism spectrum he depicts.
Notable alongside these rich renderings of life and character are the evocative backdrops they are set against. Grand places and spectacles of history, as well as mundane landscapes of the modern and the mediocre - each setting carries an emotional charge colouring the struggles of his isolated protagonists.
Ultimately, Doerr constructs a mosaic narrative which only falls into place in the closing pages. In doing so, it exercises a secular kind of myth-making, suggesting the ways that each life is preceded and succeeded, and are united in cultural present by the persistence of texts, language, and the unchanging stuff of human natures.