for newyorker.com, | September 27, 2021

Anthony Doerr’s Optimism Engine

In “Cloud Cuckoo Land,' the world may be falling apart but everything and everyone must come together.

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Anthony Doerr’s Optimism Engine

In “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the world may be falling apart but everything and everyone must come together.
bird and clouds over book
What Doerr has written is less a novel than a giant therapeutic contraption.Illustration by Adam Simpson

A curious coincidence, of the kind favored by certain novelists, occurred in 2014 and 2015, when both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction were awarded in consecutive years to Donna Tartt, for “The Goldfinch,” and Anthony Doerr, for “All the Light We Cannot See.” These novels, enormous best-sellers, are essentially children’s tales for grownups, and feature teen-age protagonists. In both books, the teen-ager possesses a rare object that has been removed from a great museum; the subsequent adventures of the object are inextricable from the adventures of the protagonist. In “The Goldfinch,” the object is an exquisite seventeenth-century painting, which thirteen-year-old Theo Decker has stolen from the Metropolitan Museum. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” Marie-Laure LeBlanc, sixteen years old and blind, ends up as the surviving guardian of a hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which once sat in a vault in the Museum of National History in Paris. As the Nazis closed in on the city, Marie-Laure and her father, who worked at the museum, fled with the gem to Saint-Malo.

The two novels end with loudly redemptive messages. On the final page of Tartt’s book, Theo informs us, “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time.” Toward the end of Doerr’s novel, a character reflects that to behold young Marie-Laure, who has survived the Second World War, albeit orphaned, “is to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts.” Years later, in 2014, a now elderly Marie-Laure sits in the Jardin des Plantes, and feels that the air is “a library and the record of every life lived.” At each moment, she laments, someone who once remembered the war is dying. But there is hope: “We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”

For both writers, I think, the real treasure to be safeguarded is not a particular painting or jewel but story itself: Tartt’s novel shares its very title with the painting in question, and more important to Marie-Laure than the gem are Jules Verne’s adventure stories, which she carries with her throughout the novel; in a stirringly implausible episode, a German soldier is kept alive by listening to her radio broadcast of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” In both books, “goodness” is really just the presumed great good of story. We “sing” across the generations, and this song is first of all the novel we hold in our hands, and more generally storytelling itself. This is what lasts, or so these writers hope: history as an enormous optimistic library.

What was implicit in “All the Light We Cannot See” is blaringly overt in Doerr’s new novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Scribner). Scattered across six hundred and twenty or so pages are five stories, set in very different places and periods. In the nearish future, Konstance, a teen-age girl (here’s our hero-guardian, once again), is flying in a spaceship with eighty-five other people, toward a planet that may sustain human life, after its collapse on earth. (Reaching its destination will take almost six hundred years.) In mid-fifteenth-century Constantinople, Anna, a Greek Christian, awaits the assault that has long been threatened by Muslim forces. A few hundred miles away, Omeir, a gentle country boy, finds himself caught up in the Sultan’s army and its march toward Constantinople, and he eventually encounters Anna. In contemporary Lakeport, Idaho, a sweet-natured octogenarian named Zeno Ninis is minding a group of schoolchildren, who are rehearsing a play in the local library, while, outside the building, a troubled ecoterrorist named Seymour sits in his car, a bomb in his lap, about to make his great explosive statement.

These characters are explicitly connected by a fable (or fragments of a fable) that Doerr has invented, and that he attributes to an actual Greek writer, Antonius Diogenes, thought to have flourished in the second century C.E. Titled “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the Doerr-Diogenes fabrication tells the tale of Aethon, a shepherd who tries to travel to “a utopian city in the sky,” a place in the clouds “where all needs are met and no one suffers.” After assorted escapades of a classical nature—the hero is turned into a donkey and a crow—Aethon returns to earth, grateful for “the green beauty of the broken world,” or, as Doerr capitalizes for the slow-witted, “WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE IS BETTER THAN WHAT YOU SO DESPERATELY SEEK.

Each of the novel’s five principal characters finds his or her way to this invented Greek text. Anna stumbles across a frail, goatskin codex of the tale in a ruined library in Constantinople. Omeir and Anna eventually fall in love and have children, and together they guard and tend the magical manuscript. Zeno spends his later years translating the Greek fable—indeed, it’s his dramatic version of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” that the schoolchildren are rehearsing in the Idaho library. Konstance’s father, one of a small number of people on the spaceship old enough to remember life on earth (most have been born on board), used to tell embellished adaptations of the Greek story to his daughter at bedtime. Near the end of Doerr’s novel, Diogenes’ fragments reach even Seymour, now in the Idaho State Correctional Institution, where he is doing time for the deadly incident at the library: Seymour gets interested in Zeno’s translation, and asks one of his victims, the town’s former librarian, to send it to him. As he reads, the potent text emits its healing gas. “By age seventeen he’d convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption,” we’re told. “But as he reconstructs Zeno’s translation, he realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”

What on earth—or even on Cloud Cuckoo Land—is this? It’s less a novel than a big therapeutic contraption, moving with sincere deliberation toward millions of eager readers. The author might reply, with some justice, that a fable is a therapeutic contraption, and so is plenty of Dickens. Doerr’s new novel, though, is more of a contraption, and more earnestly therapeutic, than any adult fiction I can recall reading. The obsessive connectivity resembles a kind of novelistic online search, each new link unfolding inescapably from its predecessor, as our author keeps pressing Return. The title shared by the Greek text and the novel comes, an epigraph reminds us, from Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds.” Yet these characters are also bound to one another by larger ropes of classical allusion and cross-reference. Anna and Zeno both excitedly discover the Odyssey before they encounter the Diogenes text; Seymour, who appears to be somewhat autistic, develops a relationship with an owl, which he nicknames Trustyfriend (a borrowing from “The Birds”); when Konstance’s father was back on earth, he used to live in Australia, on a farm he called Scheria (a mythical island in the Odyssey); the spaceship is named the Argos (the name of Odysseus’ dog, and also suggestive of Jason’s ship, the Argo).

These characters are, necessarily, held together not only by “Cloud Cuckoo Land” the fable but by “Cloud Cuckoo Land” the novel. Having laid out his flagrantly disparate cast, Doerr must insist on that cast’s almost freakish genealogical coherence. This formal insistence becomes the novel’s raison d’être. We have no idea how these people or periods relate to one another, or how they rationally could. But storytelling, redefined as esoteric manipulation, will reveal the code; the novelist is the magus, the secret historian. Although the book is largely set in a recognizable actual world, largely obeys the laws of physics, and features human beings, storytelling, stripped of organic necessity, aerates itself into fantasy.

Novels that, like “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” follow the “Cloud Atlas” suite form provide an opportunity for authorial bravado. (David Mitchell has much to answer for.) Doerr’s new book and its predecessor open with narrative propositions. The reader is, in effect, presented with a vast map, pegged with tiny characters who begin very far apart. Slowly, these dots will get bigger and move toward one another. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” for instance, we open in Saint-Malo, with sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure. Two other characters—a tenderhearted German radio engineer and a Nazi gem hunter—are converging on Marie-Laure, and it will take the course of the book for them to do so.

Doerr likes to start in medias res, and then to go back to the origins of his stories and work forward again (or forward and backward and forward again, in alternation). He dangles that first picture, the confusing snapshot from the thick of things, as the prize awaiting the properly plot-hungry, plot-patient reader. So that novel begins in 1944, and promptly takes us back to Marie-Laure at the age of six, in Paris, in order to demonstrate how she and her father ended up in Saint-Malo with a diamond bigger than the Ritz. At the opening of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” we’re presented with the incomprehensible tableau of fourteen-year-old Konstance hurtling through space in the Argos. She has recently discovered the connection between her father and Antonius Diogenes’ tale of Aethon. But the scene quickly gives way to the snatched preludes of two other stories: Zeno at the Idaho library with the children, Seymour in a parked car with his bomb. These stories, too, quickly reverse—we see Zeno at seven, in 1941, and Seymour at three, in 2005—in order to go forward once again more slowly. When we next encounter Konstance, a hundred or so pages after her first appearance, she is four years old. In this way, the reader is always playing Doerr’s game of catch-up, eager to reach a finale that has already functioned as prelude.

As a stylist, Doerr has several warring modes. One of them comes from what could be called the Richard Powers school of emergency realism. Omeir isn’t merely afraid; “tendrils of panic clutch his windpipe.” Anna isn’t merely very thirsty; “thirst twists through her.” When Seymour thinks, “questions chase one another around the carousel of his mind.” But Doerr’s habitual register is less obtrusive. He often writes very well, and is excellent at the pop-up scenic evocations required by big novels that move around a lot. Although the arcs of his stories may tend toward a kind of sentimental pedagogy, his sentences, in the main, scrupulously avoid it. He knows how to animate a picture; he knows which details to choose. Here is Zeno as a young infantryman, fighting in the Korean War. The supply truck he’s riding in has been ambushed by enemy soldiers:

A middle-aged Chinese soldier with small beige teeth drags him out of the passenger’s door and into the snow. In another breath there are twenty men around him. . . . Some carry Russian burp guns; some have rifles that look four decades old; some wear only rice bags for shoes. Most are tearing open C rations they’ve taken out of the back of the Dodge. One holds a can printed PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE while another tries to saw it open with a bayonet; another stuffs his mouth with crackers; a fourth bites into a head of cabbage as though it were a giant apple.

“I couldn’t find parking in the city, so I moved home, got back with my high-school girlfriend, had a baby, and got a great deal on a new car.”
Cartoon by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

Zeno is captured, and put in a P.O.W. camp. Doerr deftly provides the equivalent of a cinematic establishing shot: “In winter stalagmites of frozen urine reach up and out of the latrines. The river freezes, the Chinese heat fewer bunkhouses, and the Americans and Brits are merged.” We’re up and running.

Yet his prose is regularly on the verge of formula, and too often capitulates to baser needs. “All the Light We Cannot See” recycles a goodly amount of Nazi tropes: impeccably dressed officers brush invisible specks of dust from their uniforms, or pull off their leather gloves one finger at a time. A boy is “thin as a blade of grass, skin as pale as cream.” In both novels, when Doerr wants to gesture at immensity, he . . . gestures. The telltale formulation involves the word “thousand.” From his previous novel: “At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.” And: “A thousand frozen stars preside over the quad.” And: “A thousand eyes peer out.” And: “A shell screams over the house. He thinks: I only want to sit here with her for a thousand hours.” He’s at it again in the new book. Anna “practices her letter on the thousand blank pages of her mind.” Zeno, as a little boy, is afraid: “Only now does fear fill his body, a thousand snakes slithering beneath his skin.” Konstance, too, is on edge: “From the shadows crawl a thousand demons.”

It’s a minor tic, appealing even in its unconsciousness. But this double movement, simultaneously toward the enlargement of intensity and the routine of formula, tells us something about the strange terrain of Doerr’s novels, which leave so little for the mean, for the middle. Proficient prose supports an extravagance of storytelling; excellent craftsmanship holds together a flashing edifice; tight plotting underwrites earnestly immense themes. Every so often, a more subtle observer emerges amid these gapped extremities, a writer interested merely in honoring the world about him, a stylist capable of something as beautiful as “the quick, drastic strikes of a bow dashing across the strings of a violin,” or this taut description of an Idaho winter: “Icicles fang the eaves.”

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” has little time for such mimetic modesties and accidental beauties. Far more even than its predecessor, it is fraught with preachment. This novel of performative storytelling that is also a novel about storytelling is dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.” Two anxieties, reinforcing each other, are at play: the end of the book, and nothing less than the end of the world. Which is to say, the book is under threat both by the erosion of cultural memory and by the climate crisis. Doerr’s invention of the fable of Aethon is also Doerr’s fable about the precariousness of the book: a fragment that barely made it into the modern world, surviving only by the tenuous links between successive generations of readers. Books, a teacher tells Anna, are precious repositories “for the memories of people who have lived before. . . . But books, like people, die.” Elsewhere, another scribe reminds Anna that time “wipes the old books from the world,” and, likening Constantinople to an ark full of books, neatly twins this novel’s emphases: “The ark has hit the rocks, child. And the tide is washing in.”

The terminality of the message perhaps explains the frantic didacticism of all the theming. Libraries are everywhere here, from Constantinople to Idaho. In one of the book’s most tender episodes, Zeno meets an English soldier in Korea named Rex Browning, and surreptitiously falls in love with him. Rex is a classicist, who tells Zeno that he might be named for Zenodotus, “the first librarian at the library at Alexandria.” Later in the novel, back in England, Rex writes a book titled “Compendium of Lost Books.” The spaceship Argos offers an elegiac, troubling vision of life without actual libraries; its brain is a Siri-like oracle known as Sibyl, a vast digital library of everything we ever knew: “the collective wisdom of our species. Every map ever drawn, every census ever taken, every book ever published, every football match, every symphony, every edition of every newspaper, the genomic maps of over one million species—everything we can imagine and everything we might ever need.”

Gradually, you come to understand that the desperate cross-referencing and thematic reinforcing borrow not so much from the model of the Internet as from the model of the library. Just as this novel full of stories is also about storytelling, so this novel about the importance of libraries mimics a library; it is stuffed with texts and allusions and connections, an ideal compendium of “the collective wisdom of our species.”

It’s here, perhaps, that “Cloud Cuckoo Land” becomes an affecting document. As a novelist, Doerr is utterly unembarrassed by statement. For him, storytelling is entertainment and sermon; the novel is really a fable. Late Tolstoy might have approved. And since we are living in critical times, the lessons are made very legible: the book is at risk; the world is at risk; we should not seek out distant utopias but instead cultivate our burnt gardens. Above all—or, rather, underneath all—everything is connected. Seymour, vibrantly, morbidly alive to our self-destruction, realizes this:

Seymour studies the quantities of methane locked in melting Siberian permafrost. Reading about declining owl populations led him to deforestation which led to soil erosion which led to ocean pollution which led to coral bleaching, everything warming, melting, and dying faster than scientists predicted, every system on the planet connected by countless invisible threads to every other: cricket players in Delhi vomiting from Chinese air pollution, Indonesian peat fires pushing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere over California, million-acre bushfires in Australia turning what’s left of New Zealand’s glaciers pink.

If this sounds like it could almost have been written by Don DeLillo, there’s a reason. The apprehension that everything is connected is essentially a paranoid insight (and a useful one for the novelist, who can pose as esoteric decoder). What’s poignant here is the way one kind of connectivity helplessly collapses into another. Seymour’s Internet search, today’s version of a library search, is an exercise in scholarly connection, of the kind this novel also enjoys—everyone and everything is related by cross-reference and classical allusion and thematic inheritance. But “Cloud Cuckoo Land” embodies and imposes a darker connective energy, too. Climate change, after all, enforces an entirely justifiable paranoia: we are indeed part of a shared system, in which melting in one place arrives by flood in a second place and fire in yet another. One form of connectivity might be almost utopian; the other has become powerfully dystopian. History’s enormous optimistic library becomes reality’s enormous pessimistic prison. Each vision, as in Seymour’s alarmed search, fuels another in this book.

Artistically, this sincere moral and political urgency does the novel few favors, as the book veers between its relentless thematic coherence and wild fantasias of storytelling. But that urgency may also account for the novel’s brute didactic power; it is hard to read, without a shudder, the sections about the desperate and deluded Argonauts, committed to voyaging for centuries through space-time because life on earth has failed. A pity, then, and a telling one, that Doerr finally resolves nearly every story optimistically and soothingly. And Konstance’s hurtling spaceship? Oh, it turns out to be the biggest therapeutic contraption of all. ♦


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