If we’re all going to die, we might as well go out reading Anthony Doerr’s new novel
Anthony Doerr has, like many of us, clearly been doing some heavy thinking about the end of the world. But instead of binge-watching Ted Lasso or power-snacking, Doerr has written Cloud Cuckoo Land, a massive, extraordinary book about five characters trying to find a reason to live when facing extinction.
In 1453, a 14-year-old orphan named Anna is caught in the Siege of Constantinopole, while on the other side of the city’s walls, a young oxherd named Omeir is stuck working for the invading forces. In 2020, in a small lakeside town in Idaho, Zeno Ninis, an elderly veteran, faces the end of a life of frustrated desires, while Seymour Stuhlman, a high school student, casts himself as an avenger of the dying planet. And in the future, another 14-year-old girl named Konstance escapes the burning Earth for a planet 4.23 light years away.
All of these characters are united through the centuries by a story—Cloud Cuckoo Land, a fable written by Antonius Diogenes in ancient Greece about a shepherd who stumbles upon a play and, mistaking the city of the gods on stage for a real place, sets out to find it and live there. (In actuality, Doerr invented the story, taking elements from Aristophanes and from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.)
All of the characters have something else in common as well: they’re facing their deaths. Anna can expect, once the invaders breach the city, that they will rape or kill her. And they will—this is history, and it already happened. Omeir, born with a cleft palate, is meant to be one of the countless bodies left in the mud behind the marching army. Zeno survives a Korean War POW camp only to face a death at the hands of Seymour, who wants to detonate a pair of homemade bombs to protest climate change. Finally, Konstance discovers that she’ll die without ever seeing the world that’s supposed to be her salvation.
But the story of Aethon, the shepherd who becomes a donkey, then a fish, then a bird, manages to lift each of them from their grim circumstances, and into an imagined world. It becomes a lifeline, even as time and decay and loss threaten the story itself.
Some of Doerr’s fans from the wildly bestselling All The Light We Cannot See—and some critics—might have trouble following him on this long journey. He fills it with with detours and tangents, and includes big chunks of his invented Greek fable, as well as a spaceship, which tends to throw some readers.
Doerr still manages to make it all look easy. It would rob the reader of some of the joys of the book to say too much about how all these disparate threads come together, but the novel reads like it’s half its actual length. Doerr has packed it dense with what are clearly hours and hours of deep research—the chapter on the building of the biggest cannon in the ancient world is just one example–and yet it flies.
It helps that Doerr’s prose is extraordinarily clear and clean. He effortlessly mimics a half-dozen different voices, ranging across junior-high English assignments, academic jargon, and YouTube videos, while his narration occasionally drops in a devastating aside or beautiful piece of description.
Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, to which people are already comparing it, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a blend of invention and history, science fiction and fable, romance and war story. But in contrast to Mitchell’s sometimes cold and cerebral detachment, Doerr’s novel hums with sympathy for all his characters, even the most unpleasant one.
Seymour, in the hands of another author, could easily be a cliché, a Trenchcoat Mafia wannabe who a steady diet of shady Internet videos has radicalized. He brings two pressure-cooker bombs to a library where a group of 10-year-olds are rehearsing a play based on the old Greek story, which Zeno has spent years translating. While he doesn’t exactly mean to explode a bunch of kids and an old man, he’s clearly willing to accept some collateral damage in defense of Mother Earth.
But Doerr also shows Seymour as a child who a single mom in a trailer is raising. Overwhelmed by an undiagnosed sensory disorder, struggling with school, he finds peace only in a quiet wood near his home. Bombarded by the constant bad news about the state of the planet and choking every day on smoke from the burning forests surrounding his town, Seymour decides that he needs to make a statement. He believes the world is ending, and that justifies almost anything: “By age seventeen he’d convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption.”
But the world is always ending. Anna, in Constantinopole, is witness to the destruction of the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. She collects moldy scraps of old books and scrolls to sell to visiting scholars, who are picking the bones of the city clean. Constantinopole has no chance against the Sultan’s enormous cannon, made specifically to take down the city’s walls.
“The ark has hit the rocks, child,” one scholar says to Anna. “And the tide is washing in.”
Konstance, centuries later, is also living in what is supposed to be an ark, a spaceship that will carry her and eighty-two others to a distant planet now that the Earth is burned and barren. But time and circumstance threaten even this ark: no one living with Konstance will live long enough to make it to their new home. That’s for their great-grandchildren. And just outside the metal skin of their ship is a vast, howling black void of indifference.
As metaphors go, this one is pretty easy to interpret. We all know how every story ends. The walls of even the greatest city in the world will fall. The greatest books of all time will crumble to dust. Eventually, everyone we know and love will die, and so will we. This is not what most of us would call a happily ever after.
Doerr has been grappling with the idea of extinction at least since he wrote an essay titled “Planet Zoo” about the destruction in our path due to the changes we’ve created in our climate, and our inability to swerve from it.
Like us, Anna, Konstance, and the other characters have to find a way to live with impending doom bearing down on them. They discover a story that animates them. It gives their lives meaning, or represents a puzzle to be solved, or simply provides comfort to the dying.
Doerr knows sometimes the stories we latch onto turn ugly and violent, like Seymour’s does. The search for a golden city filled with riches is the driving impulse of Diogenes’ fable, but it’s also what sets the men in the Sultan’s army marching. “On one side is dancing, and the other is death. Page after page after page,” is how Zeno puts it in his translation of Diogenes.
But as long as the story lasts, we “slip the trap,” Doerr writes. We escape. We forget about death and hunger and illness, and the story transports somewhere else.
And the story itself can last for lifetimes beyond ours. Omeir passes the fable down to his children. They listen as Aethon blunders from one misadventure to another, struggling to find the perfect city in the sky, seeking Heaven but turning himself into an ass. “Tell us,” Omeir’s son says, “what the fool does next.”
This is how we survive: by finding the stories that will survive us. If Doerr’s book has a moral, that’s it.
(Scribner, September 28, 2021)