New York, NY: Voice, 2012. 304 pages. $25.99.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
It’s hard to write about beautiful books. It’s not about a lack of material, specific details, or turns of phrase that sing out long after you close the pages. Rather, the problem arises from finding ways to pin the beauty down. Even if you manage to cup a butterfly between your palms, you can only peek between your fingers to watch its wings open for a brief moment. Look too long, and it flutters away.
Such beauty is even harder to pin down when discussing the qualities of Arcadia, the second novel by the brilliant young writer Lauren Groff. Having established herself with her debut, The Monsters of Templeton, as someone who could weave a plot with shimmering language, Groff has turned her focus from the mysteries of genealogy to the conundrum of building a home in the natural world. What makes discussing Arcadia difficult is that even as she luxuriates in detailing the founding of Arcadia, a commune built up by hippies in the 1970s, she also creates unavoidable pitfalls that ensure that this commune and utopian ideal cannot succeed. Her hippies discover the abandoned acres and crumbling mansions and see a dream community, yet like a good horror story, Groff has planted seeds of discord.
The central figure of the novel is Bit, who we first meet as a small child as his parents, the architect Abe and his wife Hannah, and the rest of the Arcadia clan first come upon the land. The group’s leader, Handy, regards the sign before the abandoned Arcadia estate, “In Arcadia Ego,” as a sign that ego shall be absent in their new world. This mistranslation creates a perfect, quixotic promise for the commune—they pledge to be for each other’s benefit, and never for their own. When Bit gets older and begins to want—his freedom, his parents’ freedom, and the love of Handy’s rebellious daughter, Helle—he cannot believe in Arcadia’s ideals as he once had.
In the book’s first act, the reader’s dream of Arcadia is built through the unwavering wonder of Bit’s childhood. Much like the spritely heroine of Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bit roams freely across ersatz Arcadia. “The world contracts in a friendly way around him,” and when seeing the world, when three feet high, means seeing it on its most primal: women singing in the river, men tuning guitars by bonfires. He is entranced by an abandoned book of Grimm’s fairy tales left out in the woods, and he imagines each member of Arcadia as their fairy-tale alter egos. Helle’s mother, Astrid, might be a witch, but she is married to Handy, the “frog king.” Abe is a woodsman, and Hannah, “in her bed as the day rises and falls around her . . . is a sleeping princess, under a spell.” All the elements of great fantasy are present in Groff’s chimerical observations, as Bit details everything from the small ripples of the river to the wafts of bread-scented air that wake him up each morning. Yet undisciplined thoughts become potential threats, for Bit and for his parents, especially Hannah, who moves between her summer and winter selves, who “stares at the walls and allows her braids to unravel.” The unraveling of Arcadia comes from people wanting and finding themselves unable to speak. As the world falls apart, more and more people invade Arcadia and try to declare it a perfect world.
Setting up Bit’s childhood as fantasy play only deepens the blow of his adolescence, when Abe and Hannah further bristle at Handy’s manipulation of Arcadia. As more and more wayward travelers wander into Arcadia, the community’s purpose grows diffuse. In designating the teenage Bit as her love interest, Helle openly defies her father, and openly confronts Arcadia’s inherent turbulence. Helle embodies all the broken promises of Arcadia—she has watched children, no longer minded by parents who feel responsible for them, wandering the fields and eating potatoes and onions raw, bent by hunger. “When she speaks,” Bit thinks, “she seems unstuffed, like a pillow that has lost its feathers.” And when Arcadia’s compound is eventually stormed, Bit no longer views Arcadia as a unified whole, a perfect world of their own making. “There is so little to Bit,” Groff writes. “A fine hem of gold hair, the filthy neck of a teeshirt. Fragile, pale flesh over a sharpness of bone, and eyes so vast in his face they threaten to swallow the world just now spinning past, threaten to be swallowed by it.”
Where and why do we build utopias? We go into the woods to live deliberately, and when it becomes a gesture of taking life into our own hands, of repossessing when we felt we had been dispossessed. There is something enchanting about the early pages of Arcadia, when each thought Bit has is buoyed by hope, by a belief in something pure and loving and kind . . . and yet in its devastating second and mournful third acts, Groff kills our pure devotion to its ideals before they can take root. Arcadia’s first act is blissfully, supernaturally gorgeous, and in its closing, we see the perfect world rot. In this, Groff shows us nothing good can stay without the individual’s attempt to honor it. Bit’s crystalline recounting of Arcadia translates, in his less-than-beautiful adulthood, to a fascination with photography, and the way he looks through his camera frames the real world—the distant and soon disappeared Helle; their lovely sullen teenage daughter; a modern world where the air sours, the trees die, and diseases are invisible and airborne. No matter what noble ideals we hold, Groff hints in her final, devastating act, the earth will take itself back again. We cannot erect structures, ideologies, prophets that could be any stronger than Mother Nature.
Groff’s gorgeous novel, built with breathtaking sentences, may ultimately be about the fallibility of beauty—how it is fleeting, momentarily, a breeze through the trees at best. What we can linger on is those moments we can recount to each other once the beauty has passed. “Peace,” Bit thinks, as an old man in an even older world, “can be shattered in a million variations: great visions of the end, a rain of ash, a disease on the wind, a blast in the distance, the sun dying like a kerosene lamp clicked off. . . . He sits. He lets the afternoon sink in. The sweetness of the soil rises to him. A squirrel scolds from high in a tree. In this moment that blooms and fades as it passes, he is enough, and all is well in the world.”