by Lauren Groff
“He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.” (pg. 208)
If you fancy an introspective, deeply layered and nuanced character-driven story told from the perspective of a young boy named Bit who lives with his parents (and a host of other creatively named characters) on an upstate New York commune during the early 70s, then you’re in luck.
Arcadia‘s a different kind of book, extraordinary from the likes of some that passes for contemporary fiction. For those of us who count ourselves among fans of author Lauren Groff (and I am among them, for she’s 3 for 3 with me after this one), Arcadia delivers the same rich cadences, description, and quirky characters that we came to love in Groff’s short story collection Delicate Edible Birds (see my review here) and The Monsters of Templeton. This one does not disappoint.
Groff’s prose is absolutely poetic and draws her reader closer in an enchanting way, almost parallel to the book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that Bit finds as a child in the dilapidated mansion on the Arcadia grounds. Indeed, there are fairy tale elements throughout Arcadia – witches in the woods who transform into benevolent grandma types, bad guys set to do evil, a king (Handy, the cult-like leader of Arcadia) that lives a life of luxury (i.e. traveling around doing concerts and consorting with various women) while his minions work their asses off.
Indeed, once again the characters are Groff’s strength in this novel, just as they were in The Monsters of Templeton. She has a true gift for bringing her characters to life, and they are vividly rendered in Arcadia. Their descriptive names indicative of their commune lifestyle help: in addition to Bit, we have among us the likes of Tarzan, Helle, Helios, Sweetie, Coltrane, Dylan, Saucy Sally as well as Adam and Eve and even a Kaptain Amerika. (There are a few of your everyday Scotts, Lisas, and Eriks meandering about the commune, and many, many others.)
The Arcadians live in a world of vegan food and fresh bread, of swimming and farming naked, of celebrating their own traditions, of music and marijuana, of prodigal sons and daughters. As Utopian as Arcadia is, we know it can’t last because where there is good, there is evil. In this case, there’s a dark underside even in the presence of what manifests itself as innocence, peace, and love. Quiet and keenly observant, Bit (which is short for Little Bit of a Hippie) knows this, even as he tries to make peace with this reality versus with what he has seen of the potential the world and its people have in them to be.
“It leaves him breathless at times, how much faith people put in one another. So fragile, the social contract: we will all stand by the rules, move with care and gentleness, invest in the infrastructure, agree with the penalties of failure. That this man driving his truck down the street won’t, on a whim, angle into the plate glass and end things. That the president won’t let his hand hover over the red button and, in a moment of rage or weakness, explode the world. The invisible tissue of civilization: so thin, so easily rendable. It’s a miracle that it exists at all.
He imagines snapping his fingers , making all the people in the diner stand, at once, and become their better selves. The woman with the cragged oak-bark face throws off her hood and shakes her hair and her age drops off of her like bandages. The man with a monk’s tonsure, muttering to himself, leaps onto a table and strikes music from the air. Out of the bowels of the kitchen the weary cooks, small brown people, cartwheel and break-dance, spinning like upended beetles on the ground and their faces crack into glee and they are suddenly lovely to look at, and the dozen customers start up all at once into loud song, voices broken and beautiful. The song rises and infiltrates the city and wakes the inhabitants, one by one, from their own dark dreams, and all across the island, people sit up in bed and listen to it lap around them, an ocean of kindness, filling them, making them forget all the evil leaching out of the world for a very long moment, making them forget everything but the song.” (pg. 203)
Bit knows the goodness. the purity that exists in people. As he ages, he holds steadfast onto the true spirit of Arcadia.
“He is … wondering where his dreams went. They were not so very large, they were not too heavy to carry. One legacy of Arcadia is that his push for happiness was out of sync with the world’s, his ambition was for safety, security, a life of enough food and shelter and money, books and love, the luxury of pursuing the truth by art. The luxury of looking deeply, of finding a direct path to empathy. It didn’t seem unattainable.” (pg. 183)
It’s hard to say more about Arcadia without giving too much more away about what happens – and believe me, even though you would think life is simple and plain on a commune, THINGS HAPPEN. I absolutely loved this novel, just as I did both of Lauren Groff’s previous works. Couldn’t put it down and this one earns a spot on my Best of 2012 list. Highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5.