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With 'Cloud Cuckoo Land,' Anthony Doerr Dazzles And Disturbs


This is FRESH AIR. Anthony Doerr's 2014 novel, "All The Light We Cannot See," won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His much anticipated new novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," is just out, and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it will not disappoint.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Of all our contemporary literary fiction writers, Anthony Doerr is the one whose novels seem to be the purest response to the primal request - tell me a story. "All The Light We Cannot See," Doerr's 2014 novel set during World War II, was a hectic network of stories - love stories, war stories, coming-of-age stories. His latest novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," ups the ante. It's not only packed with stories, but it's about how stories can give us light and hope.

Doerr makes up a comic novel from ancient Greece about a shepherd who yearns to turn into a bird and fly to a beautiful cloud cuckoo land. This imaginary story will sustain five young people, each of them living in dangerous times across the span of eight centuries. The opening section here introduces us to Konstance, a 14-year-old girl who's a passenger on the Argos, a 22nd-century spaceship fleeing an Earth that's been ravaged by climate change. Konstance sits alone in a sealed room reading about the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century.

Meanwhile, other characters in this novel are enduring that terror. Omeir is a teenager who's been conscripted into the sultan's army, laying siege to Constantinople. Within that city, Anna, an orphan, works in an embroidery house - what we would call a sweatshop. Anna prefers to dash through the city streets rather than sew, and one day she stumbles upon a tutor reciting the "Odyssey" to a group of boys. Bartering stolen wine for lessons, Anna will eventually learn enough to decipher an ancient Greek codex she finds that tells a tale about a shepherd who yearns to fly.

And here's one more thing to know about Anna, courtesy of Doerr's stoic, omniscient narrator who introduces her at age 7. Anna and her older sister Maria sleep in a one-window cell, barely large enough for a horse-hair palette. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange and never set foot outside the city walls. Before she turns 14, every person she knows will either be enslaved or dead.

Doerr coolly thrusts the violence of the present upon us with the stories of Seymour and Zeno. Their lives intersect at the Lakeport Public Library, where Seymour, an emotionally fragile young man, decides to plant a homemade bomb in the stacks. What he doesn't anticipate is that a group of children are upstairs rehearsing a performance of "Cloud Cuckoo Land," a fantastic adventure tale they've been introduced to by Zeno, an elderly, self-taught classic scholar. Spiraling out from that awful situation, indeed, from all these awful situations, are dizzying stories that coalesce into a spectacular master narrative about love and the balm of humor and the inescapability of suffering.

The correspondences in "Cloud Cuckoo Land," between the disasters faced by Doerr's characters and our own anxious age when it can sometimes feel, as his narrator says about the fall of Constantinople, that the time of man on earth is ending, are stark and deliberate. But Doerr optimistically insists on the possibility of words to connect and uplift people across time and other divides. In a flashback tale about the teenage Zeno's time in a Korean POW camp, we meet a minor character named Rex, who testifies memorably to the power of stories. In civilian life, Rex was a classics teacher. And when Zeno tells him that he's read the "Odyssey" thanks to the librarians in his hometown, Rex begins quoting passages he's memorized of the "Odyssey." Here's the scene.

(Reading) Wood smoke, a rumbling generator, the Chinese flag, the reek of the latrines - Zeno can see a darkness seize Rex, then slowly release him. I know why those librarians read the old stories to you, Rex tells Zeno, because if it's told well enough for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.

"Cloud Cuckoo Land" also allows us readers to slip the trap. It transports us to places far above the stars and down into the mud. It dazzles and disturbs. And I, for one, wanted Doerr's vast and overwhelming story to last much, much longer.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Cloud Cuckoo Land" by Anthony Doerr. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. She started using the phrase in 2005 in her work with Black and brown girls who were survivors of sexual violence like she is. The #MeToo hashtag went viral when victims started coming forward after the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Burke has written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.