I have just read two novels back to back: Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. Written almost a hundred years apart, they are totally different in structure and complexity; yet they both raise a question: Is it okay for a novel to be episodic?
By my count, Cloud Cuckoo Land contains five separate narratives written in five genres: literary pastiche, futuristic sci-fi, historical fiction, personal saga, and thriller. Each story is told in interwoven pieces, which means that, on first reading, it feels episodic—and one reading is all most people give any book. By contrast, The Thirty-Nine Steps hurtles along sequentially from one narrow escape to the next in a single story line. Yet what happens in one chapter doesn't have much importance to the next except to provide a cliffhanger, so the novel really can be fairly called episodic; and it's highly entertaining. It lacks the layers, allusions, and deep humanity of Cloud Cuckoo Land; but it succeeds brilliantly on its own terms.
Along with other readers, I found that all the strands of Cloud Cuckoo Land came together through causal connections in the last third, which made the book even more satisfying than its good prose and interesting events. Better still, on a second reading, I was alert to elements from the beginning, which increased my admiration for what Doerr accomplished. Nevertheless, I would argue that reading one episode after another can be a natural way of experiencing a novel, just as watching one episode after another is what we expect from television series. What I'd counsel writers is that if you find your long fiction tends to be episodic, don't worry. And, readers, if you are enjoying an episodic novel, just enjoy!
Bonus: I read Cloud Cuckoo Land with my local library's book club and prepared discussion questions for the meeting. Maybe they will interest you in this novel in particular or in approaches to reading generally.
Discussion questions for Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
1. How many versions of Antonius Diogenes's story, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," did you notice in the novel? How are they alike and different?
2. If Cloud Cuckoo Land is taken to be an ideal place, a utopia, how many others occur in the novel either as settings, allusions, places yearned for by the characters, or lyric images? Are any of them comic or ironic?
3. How does Odysseus at Alcinous's palace contribute to the themes of paradise and of going home?
4. Are there other echoes of Greek mythology or literature in the novel?
5. Are there dystopias in the novel? If so, where and to what effect?
6. What is the role of violence in the novel? of mortality?
7. How many plot lines do you find in Cloud Cuckoo Land? What is the effect of encountering them discontinuously? Do they come together either as a coherent narrative or mosaic? Or is it important for them to remain in some way fragmentary?
8. What characters fall into groups because of some attribute? For example, Aethon, Omeir, and Zeno can each be seen as a country bumpkin. How are they the same? different? How does understanding one modify your reaction to another? Do some characters fall into more than one group?
9. Can an obvious grouping be extended? For instance, can Seymour be added to the Aethon-Omeir-Zeno group if each is considered isolated in some way? Would this change your understanding of Seymour—or of them? Which characters would fall into more than one group?
10. Licinius teaches Anna to read Greek by scratching letters in the dust; Rex does the same for Zeno. Is Konstance's use of her homemade ink and scraps a part of this pattern or a different one? How many patterns did you notice in the storytelling?
11. What non-narrative recurrent elements did you notice, e.g., the appearance of owls and crows or of painted scenery? What do they contribute to the novel?
12. On p. 44, Omeir's family shelters under "an overhang inside which hominids painted aurochs …" Neanderthals produced cave art (lines and dots), but only Homo sapiens painted those famous cave animals. The Italian traders to whom Anna carries manuscripts have six snuff boxes, one of which is painted with a city in the clouds. But tobacco did not arrive in Europe until the 1550's and snuff boxes did not become common until the 18th century. Are these anachronisms simply mistakes by Doerr or do they signify in some way? Did you notice any other anomalies?
13. Konstance begins to shatter false images in the Atlas, and then on p. 249 "Her fingertips strike something solid and her heart thumps." What happens? (See also p. 465.)
14. How do we enter Cloud Cuckoo Land?