Ordinarily I love meta stories and stories that play with unreliable narration. Stories about stories. Cloud Cuckoo Land sounds like it should be my cup of tea. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Sea of Tranquility. As gripping as some parts of this book were, other parts were a snooze fest. Anthony Doerr has clearly put a lot of work into this story, from research to setting and characters—and I want to be clear that I think there’s something here. I’m just not sure it becomes a unified story in a way that I consider satisfying.
This book is framed around a lost Diogenes story that tells of a foolish man named Aethon who, among other misadventures, visits a fantastical land—Cloud Cuckoo Land. The chapters take place across different time periods. There’s Constantinople in the years leading up to its invasion and sacking of 1453. There’s the decades leading up to Lakeport, Idaho in 2020, where an eighty-year-old man is putting on a play based on this Diogenes text, which he has been translating from recovered scraps of Greek. At the same time, a young man carries out a domestic terrorist plot that threatens the lives of the man, the children in his charge, and others. Finally, in the near future, a generation ship makes its way to a new home for humanity. One of its occupants becomes obsessed with the Diogenes story, for it is her only link to her father, from whom she has become irrevocably isolated.
As you can see, a lot of moving pieces and very difficult to summarize!
The chapters are largely short and grouped into short parts, each of which is preceded by a quotation from this lost manuscript. The problem, as is often the case with stories dispersed across such varied time periods, is that not every storyline is as interesting as the next. Oemir and Anna’s stories didn’t grab me as much as Seymour or Zeno’s; similarly, Konstance’s story could be interesting but is such a slow burn. Actually, no, I take that back—all of these stories, with the exception maybe of Oemir’s, feel like a slow burn, and I’m not here for it.
Seymour’s characterization and storyline are also problematic, perpetuating a stereotype that links autistic people with terrorism. Doerr portrays Seymour as autistic in a sympathetic way: the descriptions of sensory overload and how Seymour sees the world are consistent with what autistic friends have described to me. Unfortunately, Seymour is also a terrorist. His entire plot involves taking revenge on a company he thinks has wronged him, being radicalized and building a bomb in the process. This idea that autistic people or people with mental illness are more likely to commit terrorist acts—as opposed to, you know, actual fascists, militant white supremacists, etc.—is dangerous. For this alone, I would not recommend Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Beyond that, however, this is just a messy and boring book. I can see the value that some have derived from it, for Doerr’s writing has some spellbinding qualities to it. I wanted to immerse myself in each of the worlds here, yet I was constantly yanked away, pulled into the next one, before any real development had occurred. Each of these storylines by themselves might have made for a compelling novel. Merged and entwined as they are, the result is a muddy brown where there should be a riot of rainbow.