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March 4, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I fell in love with Lauren Groff in 2008 with The Monsters of Templeton, a crazy novel with its own sea-creature. When I read her short story collection Delicate Edible Birds in 2009, I discovered that I’d actually been in love with her since 2006 when I first read her work with the short story “L. DeBard and Aliette” in The Atlantic. And it has been a pleasure to love a current author so unabashedly in a time when so many books disappoint, though her latest novel Arcadia would make or break our winning streak. So it with great joy that I find I’m able to repeat word-for-word an excerpt from my Monsters of Templeton review four years ago: “I finished reading this last night near 1am, and couldn’t sleep for a long time, just thinking about it, and smiling.” Groff is not only as good as ever, but she’s better and better.

Lauren Groff is a rule-breaker, a boundary-pusher, a genre-blurrer. There’s nobody else quite like like her writing right now, and she writes on the shoulders of those who came before her, with references in her latest book to Greek myth, Melville, the Brothers Grimm, and Eliot. She also writes with a deep appreciation and awe for history, for the role of story within history, and for the epic. Her first novel had a larger-than-lifeness about it, which is not so unusual for a book a writer has been working her life for, but it’s less usual for a second novel and for it to be pulled off so successfully too.

Arcadia starts at the beginning of the world, Arcadia, a hippie commune in New York State near the end of the 1960s. It’s the only world Bit has ever known, Bit short for “Little Bit”, tiny from the day he was born, his early life spent with his loving parents Abe and Hannah in the Arcadia bakery truck. As the community grows and progresses, we see the Arcadians unable to isolate themselves from the evils of the outside world– even in Arcadia, Hannah suffers from profound depression, there is infighting among the community leaders, problems with drug-addicted runaways who keep turning up, and trouble getting enough food and resources to keep everybody fed and healthy. Bit and his peers suffer from extreme deprivation, and yet are also granted the security that comes from being so firmly knit into a community fabric and feeling a sense of belonging. When the balance tips too far the other way, however, Bit’s parents finally make the decision to leave, and he’s cast out into the world for the first time at the age of 14.

I was having a discussion with my husband yesterday about the difficulty of settling into science fiction or fantasy novels whose whole worlds have to be created in order for the story to finally start, and I had similar difficulty getting into Arcadia, coming to understand the specificity of this singular place, its peculiar vernacular, social and political structures. I like my fiction very much here and now, and Arcadia seemed so far afield from both these things. I wasn’t always altogether sure what the point was, what the payoff of my efforts would be. I’m not a sci-fi/fantasy person, and while Groff is not a sci-fi/fantasy writer, she plays with the tropes and structures of genre in her literature– she’s the one who put the sea-monster in her novel after all (but then she is also the writer who made me love a novel with a sea-monster in it. Miracles will never cease).

So although I enjoyed the book from the very start, I wasn’t swept away by it until half way through when we find Bit grown, twenty years since we saw him last, living in New York City with a young daughter. And suddenly, I had a sense of everything Arcadia had been working toward, and Groff’s method became apparent, this novel’s massive sense of scale and its ambition. Bit has married and had a child with Helle, an Arcadian he’d grown up with who’s been troubled for years, and has recently disappeared leaving him responsible for the care of their 3 year-old daughter. He is left to navigate his grief, the practical matters of single-fatherhood, and the fact of his still-alienation from the world around him, his idealization of his childhood. He’s still close to the other Arcadian children he grew up with, in fact they’re the only people he’s close to in the world, because no one else understands the peculiarity of his situation. He goes out on a date with a perfectly nice woman, but is unable to take things any further when she tells him, “I read Atlas Shrugged in college and thought, Oh my God, everything’s coming into focus, finally. You know what I mean?”

And of course he doesn’t, but he’s not entirely alone. He does feel a profound sense of connection with the city and its inhabitants. He notes that New Yorkers did not recover from the Twins Towers attacks in the the way he had expected, that what they had lost was

“not real estate of lives. It was the story they had told about themselves from the moment the Dutch had decanted from their ships…: that this place was filled with water and wildlife was rare, equitable. That it would embrace everyone who came here, that there would be room, and a chance to thrive, glamour and beauty. That this equality of purpose would keep them safe. “

Bit understands, Groff writes, “that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.”

When we find Bit again, it’s 2018 and the entire world is in peril. Low-lying nations are being swept away, Venice sunk, and an epidemic is sweeping the world, drawing closer to New York City. Ordinary life goes on against this backdrop, however, and when his father dies and his mother is left alone to suffer the last stage of ALS, he must return with his daughter to Arcadia where his parents had returned to build a home for their final years. And it is here where Bit must make peace with where he came from, forgive his parents for their mixed legacy, and find a way to finally begin facing forward in his life, his own story, even as the end of the world seems to drawing nigh.

One thought on “Arcadia by Lauren Groff”

  1. Kristin says:

    So excited to read this. I liked Monsters of Templeton but I LOVED Delicate, Edible Birds. I read it over a year ago and the stories still stick with me. Great review!

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