Cloud Cuckoo Land, the new, 622-page epic tale from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr, is a book filled to the brim with a lot of big and powerful themes — climate crisis, war, literature, home. But above all else, it’s about the ways we compulsively try to escape reality or dull its edges, because reality is frequently difficult or painful or at the very least Not A Lot of Fun.
The novel follows five humans in four different eras attempting to find joy and purpose in a world that our own species has broken. Tales of human struggle against circumstances we’ve created ourselves are timeless, and to that end, Doerr writes in the author’s note: “This book, intended as a paean to books, is built upon the foundation of many books.” He goes on to credit, among other works, a couple of ancient Greek texts as inspiration. This is appropriate, as the four timelines in Cloud Cuckoo Land are bound together by their protagonists’ shared fascination with one Greek story — for which the novel is named — that has made its way, through floods and wars and a variety of interpretations, through the centuries.
But one book that I could not stop thinking about while reading Cloud Cuckoo Land goes unmentioned in this acknowledgment, an omission that I do not think is intentional. It is Infinite Jest, the 1000-plus page, heavily endnote-d tome written by David Foster Wallace 25 years ago — quite recent, in the spectrum of works that Doerr cites as inspiration. Infinite Jest, which explores the many contemporary forms of addiction and obsession, has suffered the baffling fate of becoming something of a punchline in popular culture, the go-to name drop of pretentious bros who want you to know that they read. You might hear the title tucked in between terms like “mansplain” or “Chapo Trap House.”
I don’t know how this happened. It could be that Foster Wallace himself is considered one of the lesser-known poster boys of toxic masculinity, at this point, having been posthumously exposed as an abuser and misogynist. But it does a disservice to the fact that Infinite Jest — to almost eerie accuracy — foretold so beautifully and so well our current era of escapism, be it through drugs or films or the internet or sports or the solitude of our own homes.
This is the part where I should try to give you a better idea of the plots of both of these books, and that is no small task, because they are both made up of very multilayered, complex storylines. So, here goes nothing.
Cloud Cuckoo Land’s five main characters span a bit less than a millennium — two converging in 1400s Constantinople, two overlapping in Idaho in the 1950s and 2020, and one in the post-climate-apocalypse 2100s. Each of the characters comes across a story written by the Greek poet Diogenes, and their lives at least partially revolve around the interpretation and preservation of this tale. Infinite Jest’s storylines, which similarly intertwine with each other, cover a private tennis academy, an addiction recovery program, a Quebecois terrorist plot, and one dysfunctional family, all revolving around one work of film that is known as “The Entertainment,” and completely engulfs and destroys anyone who sees it.
Most readers of either book will recognize the depressing forces from which its characters are fleeing: the growing domination of sterile corporations, the razing of the natural world at the whims of men, capitalist pressures of productivity and performance above all else, poverty and loneliness and disappointment. Reading even that small list of themes, you probably want to click out of this page right now and seek some dopamine-delivering comfort. (Editor’s note: please don’t.)
The predominant spectre in Cloud Cuckoo Land is the threat of climate change, explored most explicitly in the asynchronous stories of Seymour and Konstance. (Although you can hardly separate climate change from most of the consumerist culture satirized in Infinite Jest.) Seymour, a sensitive and troubled teenager in the 2020s, becomes obsessed with climate change and environmental destruction after a developer clears the forest surrounding his house to build a large, unremarkable vacation home development. Konstance, whose story takes place a century or so after Seymour’s, is a passenger aboard the Argos, a self-contained spaceship carrying several generations of Earth’s refugees who have fled a destroyed and dysfunctional planet to colonize a new one.
The neighboring woods, and all the creatures within them, were Seymour’s source of solace from an overworked single mom and an overwhelming school. Without them, he turns to the comforts of a radical environmental terrorist group. Konstance, facing the reality that she’ll live her whole life on the Argos, begins spending endless hours exploring the offerings of the spaceship’s limitless Library, which contains “all human knowledge.” There are fascinating threads here, to that end, with regard to “good” escapes and “bad” ones.
Books, however, are good, in Cloud Cuckoo Land, no matter how engrossing and life-consuming; they are healthy, they are pure, they are somehow imbued with helpful magic. Terrorism, not great; it will definitely cause more problems than it solves. Virtual reality, a toss-up; people can become so obsessed that they forget to eat and drink and care for themselves — akin to Infinite Jest’s “the Entertainment” — or they can use it as a tool for genuine exploration and learning. It’s interesting, in retrospect, that Doerr doesn’t really touch the idea of drug abuse, which is the fundamental form of escape exhaustively explored in Infinite Jest.
As the writer of Grist’s Ask Umbra advice column over the past four years — and keeper of the questions of those seeking advice — I’ve been permitted some unique insight into what people want to know about climate change. And one recurrent concern is: how do we get away from it? Where should I live to avoid the worst of climate consequences? Are my desires to bury myself deep in holiday fantasy OK during a climate crisis? And even: Can I metaphysically remove myself from this situation?
The bigger — and harder — question implicit in all of those is that if modern human nature is to ignore and escape what’s difficult in real life, what hope do we ever have of solving the enormously challenging and depressing climate change conundrum? The reader of Cloud Cuckoo Land will have a hard time seeing how it ends with any light — especially a reader simultaneously taking in news of Congressional climate plan negotiations, Southern California oil spills, and Colorado wildfires.
I feel I have to tell you that it does — a little shred of light, but just enough. And it feels wonderful, even in worlds that feel a little too painfully familiar, to spend a few days losing oneself in an exquisitely built book.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ and the world we cannot escape on Oct 8, 2021.