What’s different about modern novels? We’re segmented into genres, commercial tracks that allow for reasonable market placement and expectation of returns. This is the way the business seems to work, the system that’s evolved over time. There’s just no point talking about great books from the past and how they would have fared in the modern age of publishing. Just be glad we have the heritage of literature that has been gifted to us, words that we’ll never lose.
Books that transition between genres but remain accessible to a reading audience are interesting. Anthony Doerr wrote ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, and while I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up that book a few years ago, it rather blew me away. His next creation, ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ has a title that seems silly, and to be honest, there are throwbacks in this book to Greek stories (real or unreal) that also border on the silly. Ever skip cut-away parallel stories that are inset by the author at the beginning of various chapters to provide alternative narratives or context for what is happening in so-called ‘real-life’? I completely did that with this book. Sorry, Anthony.
But the bones are fine. A couple of characters propel themselves inevitably towards each other in 1400’s Constantinople. Two more intersect in a little town in more or less present day, plagued by their own tangled identities. And one little girl streaks through space on a starship in the future, a Star Trek-like evolution into the ultimate socialist snow globe. These are firm narratives, all told around a story, a Greek legend that has finally reappeared, even though no one was looking for it. Pity that the Greek legend itself makes an appearance in this book – the story around which this story is written is the weakest part of the novel, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a towering story.
I stopped reading books for quite a while. Disillusioned with the heightening commerciality (sp?) of fiction, the devotion to genres or tropes, the inability it seems to tell a new story, one that breaks boundaries, pushes borders, lifts us up and goes beyond just giving us a moment of comfort, but spins us through space, head over tail, gravity pinning us to the ground at times, leaving at others. I’m arrogant. And it’s hubris to think that fuck, all these books are so boring and have so much sameness, so I’ll just go ahead and write something bold, something that eschews boundaries and crushes genres until they’re unrecognizable. Of course, I got no street cred. Anthony Doerr, however… he does.
This book is a bit of a unicorn. It’s not necessarily literary fiction, or upmarket. Why am I even wasting time trying to pin this? It’s not like I know what I’m talking about. But I do know when I read something bold, and Cloud Cuckoo Land is certainly that. I loved these characters (not the Greek dude reciting his forgotten narrative, but everyone else), wanted them to intersect – and that they did, around a book. This is a book about books, told a few hundred years apart in space and time, celebrating what we love about reading, about stories. I’d be so bold as to say that this book celebrates being a diversion from our commercial expectations – it is that sort of book that, if this were someone’s first novel, I doubt it would ever see the light of day. It’s just a hard one to place, but it dances real good, with all the moves I’d like to shake out of my arms and legs, my hips that pretend they’re moving to music I’ll never write.
Okay, so I didn’t love the ending. There’s a conceit at play in the ending that wraps things up too neatly, and presents a bit of a twist on top of that. Every thread comes together. That’s deeply satisfying in one way, but I’m honestly okay with ambiguity and the extension of people into spaces we don’t usually tread. I got mud on my shoes most of the time. It’s snowing outside right now, and I’m pretty sure that I read a very important, profound book, one that has a silly narration throughout and that ties things up too neatly, regrounding ourselves on Earth when I think perhaps what we want is to soar. This is my real problem with this book. It didn’t end with me soaring – it only left me deeply satisfied. Funny thing to say, isn’t it? Look who’s talking about expectations now…
‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is a stronger, but less ambitious book. ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ is certainly a worth follow-up, as Mr. Doerr transitions into some kind of Salman Rushdie-esque avatar that sits in front of a computer and does the research. That’s totally cool with me. I don’t need to love every word or decision to remember how much I love books like this, shamelessly-crazy books that are bugnuts at their core, somewhat incohesive at times, but that take disparate characters and try to say something, anything – books are great, god reading is wonderful, stories have saved our humanity, still do, so on and so on. Thank god for people who are allowed to write like this. I’m a shit, unadorned writer who works at my day job sixty hours a week and has a house full of kids, so my contributions to the literary world – ignored and largely unspectacular – are strained, time-limited, and tempered by a drive to write something meaningful and grand, where the story defies our expectations. I think, if I had to offer a one sentence review of ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’, it would be this: incredibly ambitious and somewhat flawed, still, I’d like to write a book like this.
To all you authors out there, striving and pushing, let me tell you something. No matter where you sit, or how you’re doing, whether you’re big or anonymous, either way you’re on the right track. Some track to some place. I’d suggest you be a bit bold, a little crazy, even if the attempt is not entirely successful, because you never know when you’ll suddenly end up celebrating something profound, a moment that you’ve made for someone else, that they’ll take away, sequester themselves under a night light, wonder what they hell you were thinking, go to sleep dreaming on their own stories, the ones I hope they too will get to telling. Why not? Our stories are handed down, even the new ones that feel fresh, that consider the world in a different way, and surprise us right at the core of who we are.