Arcadia by Lauren Groff
(Voice/Hyperion, March 2012)
Review by Jennifer Bannan
A Man among Earth Mothers
Largely from the point of view of a child? Not usually for me. More than 30 characters to know and track? No thank you! And how about a 50-year time span? You must be kidding. Yet all of the above is true about Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. And the novel works, through its strength of language, scene and suggestion.
The novel begins in the 1970s with the first years of a commune in western New York state formed by several dozen hippie utopians. Bit, the first child born to the commune, narrates the story up until its ending in New York City in the year 2018. In between these endpoints, Arcadia feels somewhat plot-less. It moves from cross-section to cross-section of Bit’s experience: We are offered lyrical, compact scenes, or portions of scenes, that because of their strength of suggestion allow for an effortless filling-in of the spaces in between.
Some of these scenes: the entire commune bands together to renovate the dilapidated mansion before the commune’s leader, Handy, is to return from a concert tour of his band. With a single brushstroke, Groff helps us know that Handy will always pass the buck and let the others do the work. In another scene that feels like a mere impression, this one from Bit’s later childhood, a Quonset hut burns down in the night and a baby dies, an event that puts a finer point on the hazards of living off the land and makes us wonder how long the community will hold together. Then, during Bit’s teen years, a rock and roll fair on the grounds of a more-populated, unmanageable Arcadia gets ugly, resulting in the drug arrests of hundreds. Utopia can’t last, these broad brush-strokes seem to tell us. And when it comes to love, the story is no different. After much yearning, Bit finally gains the love of Helle, Handy’s wild daughter, only to be abandoned by her later when they move to New York.
For all the characters (which include Bit’s own parents Hannah and Abe, the heart of the commune, Astrid the midwife with bad teeth, Kaptain Amerika, the former English professor with the “messed up brain,” the ragtag collection of children who grow up with Bit, and dozens more) and the sprawling timeline, the book maintains a calm presence and poetry of language that astounds the reader. People’s voices, delivered quotation-free, feel like sensation, like the gurgle of the creek, the taste of dirt in your teeth. Take the moment Bit sees his father’s fall from the roof, an accident that will keep him wheelchair-bound for the rest of this life:
When Bit closes his eyes, he can see what Abe can see, how Arcadia spreads below him: the garden where the other children push corn and bean seeds into the rows, the Pond. The fresh-plowed corduroy fields, workers like burdocks stuck to them. Amos the Amish’s red barn, tiny in the distance. The roll of the forest tucked up under the hills. And whatever is beyond: cities of glass, of steel. ..But now, reflected in the puddle, Abe. Rolling off the roof: a marble, a pebble. For one bright moment, Bit’s father hangs in the air. He is stuck, hovering: some string must be holding him. But there isn’t a string. Abe flies down the surface of the puddle.
Or maybe Groff’s ability to enthrall comes not only from this sort of story-telling through sensation but from the fact that the commune itself is so different an environment from the typical reader’s. This also could explain why the story seems to lose some of its charm when we move with Bit to New York, where he raises his and Helle’s child, Grete, teaches photography classes and is generally mopey. His sadness is felt as he mourns the persistence of Helle’s absence, who had abandoned him, and his mother and father’s failing health (and it echoes earlier feelings of abandonment he’d had when during his childhood his mother Hannah had succumbed to a vehement case of what looks like seasonal affective disorder), but the hope he feels is only a dim glow. There will never be a place like Arcadia, which is testament to the wonders of the world the utopians had built.
Bit goes back to Arcadia later in the novel, with Grete, the dying Hannah, who wants to live out her last days at Arcadia, and his new love interest, Ellis. The return to the commune satisfies and adds a few illuminations of its own. When Groff is writing in the Arcadian setting, she is at her best.
What might be most remarkable about Bit’s story is the push and pull of his interactions with the women around him. First there is the question, during his early childhood, of whether Hannah will recover from her funk and be a real mother to him again. Then he becomes a mascot of birth and is present like a talisman beside the midwife Astrid’s ministrations. In his teenage years he lurks around the home of an old crone and hermit, Verde, hoping for answers to life’s mysteries. Helle tortures him with her indifference, then her love, then her drug addiction and finally her disappearance. His daughter, Grete, resists his ideas like any teenager. He discovers she can be selfish, and a sore loser and manipulative: “You can’t make me…like Mom,” she says, watching him. “I’ll run away.” Then in the next beat she offers him kindness. Will the females ever give the tenderhearted Bit some peace?
This constant cycle of thrill and pain, if we feel the need to be allegorical and consider women to be a symbol of the Earthly, is exactly the struggle of any man hoping to live off the land.
Jennifer Bannan is the author of the short story collection, Inventing
Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003. She is at work on two
novels and is pursuing her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh.