Book of Clouds arrives coated in the sort of effusive blurbs conspicuous only when absent from a first novel’s jacket these days. It takes place in twenty-first-century Berlin, a city many have tried to capture with words, brushstrokes, and various shutter speeds, but one ignored by many of its residents in favor of their own misguided hopes and dreams. There the book follows Tatiana, the alter ego of the author, Chloe Aridjis, as she floats through life aimlessly, with a taste for ennui and slipshod metaphor. Very little happens to Tatiana/Chloe, whose defining characteristics are that she is Mexican (the American author is the daughter of a former ambassador to Mexico), Jewish (though it’s unclear why this is important), and solitary. She has no friends in Berlin and no real reason to be there. After five postcollegiate years wash by, she’s still temping, she’s got no boyfriend, her German’s not perfect, and her parents are still sending her monthly checks from their deli in Mexico.
Tatiana has a vaguely phenomenological approach to life: Whole pages are given over to description of a storm or a walk, an S-Bahn journey or a party. Unfortunately, these extended observations lead precisely nowhere and are often disrupted by her extreme self-consciousness. Her overactive imagination gathers material, one supposes, from bad history books and worse novels. When she gets separated from her family in a subway car during an anti–Berlin Wall rally in 1986, there’s a long and awkward passage describing her fellow passengers as specimens in an aviary (“large black and grey birds with blond tufts laughed and told jokes while scruffy brown birds with ruffled feathers waved bottles of beer”) and a sighting of Hitler, masquerading as an old woman. Hey, we’re in Germany. Hitler’s everywhere. She observes: “Three years later, the Wall fell. And I, in one way or another, grew up.”
But she doesn’t, because she returns to Berlin following what one surmises to have been a lackadaisical stint in college back home and immediately sets about indulging her adolescent penchant for cliché and twee observation. The old women living below her are “most likely” World War II widows (it’s 2007, ladies and gentlemen), bicycles are yellow, days are spent at the Bar Gagarin, affairs are had with students from the Humboldt and actors from the Volksbühne, novellas are von Zweig, and German verbs are stalwart.
But then Tatiana meets Doktor Friedrich Weiss, the catalyst she needs to force this wisp of a story along: She becomes his “mechanical ear,” transcribing the words this professor (of Berlin history, of course) speaks into a Dictaphone. As luck would have it, he asks her to become his research assistant and sends her around the city, so he can stay wrapped in a robe, padding around his unheated Altbau apartment, drinking elderflower syrup, and ignoring the present. He’s stuck in an idea of the past, as is Aridjis: rehashing simple notions about East and West, what Berlin might have been, not what it is. It’s unclear what research Weiss is actually doing. Many years after the collapse of the wall, he is asking Tatiana to interview coyly constructed characters who grew up in East Germany and who, like her eventual love interest, Jonas Krantz the rough-hewn meteorologist, kept cloud gardens as children. She also interrogates a beggar girl on Alexanderplatz, whom Tatiana dubs the Simpleton because her “smile seemed to get in the way of language. It seems rather odd that someone like Aridjis, who has a Ph.D. in literature, specifically poetry, would let herself have a thought like that. And then write it down! And that’s not counting the times she uses the word atwinkle or describes “a growing ache between [my] legs that needed attending to,” before she deigns to be “entered” by Jonas a few pages later.
Aridjis wants to tie up her story neatly under a symbolic banner, namely the weather. She comments on it frequently: here a storm, there a cloud and some rain, finally a cataclysmic fog. One problem with this portentous meteorology is that Berlin is not at all known for its unusual weather. Moreover, her argument, that Berlin is running from history, covering it up with its proverbial clouds, although history pulsates out of every sewer and basement and between all floorboards and elevator shafts, is simply incorrect. Her assessment “So much for historical accuracy, I thought to myself, each of us was as guilty as the next, surrendering to intellectual laxness for the sake of mystery and thrill” might be true for her book, but not for the city itself. What of the Peter Eisenman Holocaust memorial?
By the time Aridjis foists the clumsy climax on her readers—there is fog, there are Plattenbauten and “fascist hoodlums,” there is an assault, a crotch grab, and some broken ribs—we are hoping Tatiana has learned to care about something, anything. But she emerges from it all unchanged, again, with that insatiable urge to see nothing for what it is, but only for what she thinks it ought to be.
Book of Clouds is a nebulous affair. Neither “A Book nor “The” Book, simply Book of Clouds, like an altostratus brushed onto the horizon of our senses, the kind of cloud that’s just a streak of atmospheric matter, forgotten as quickly as it is seen, leaving little behind but a vague sense of gray skies. Could this have been the author’s intention? Perhaps so. As she writes, not so unwittingly, about Doktor Weiss: “What more can he say? He’s written so much about Berlin already. Everyone has.”
Jessica Joffe is a writer living in New York.