I have been seeing reviews and articles about Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies everywhere lately so, being unable to buy it myself, I thought I would make do with one of her earlier books – Arcadia.
Arcadia tells the story of an upstate New York commune led by the charismatic Handy – a musician, guru, and possible fraud – which at first, when the novel opens in the 70s, is a wholesome and happy place. A pure place where the aim is to
Live with the land, not on it. Live outside the evil of commerce and make our own lives from scratch. Let love be our beacon to light up the world.
As is to be expected, Arcadia inevitably collapses in on itself, soured by corruption and personal bias, and Groff explores the clash between personal freedoms and community living through the eyes of her narrator, the 5 year old Ridley ‘Bit’ Stone, the first child born in Arcadia. The novel opens with Bit’s dreamlike prenatal memories of the founding of Arcadia and each section moves through different periods in Bit’s life, ending with him trying to make sense of life at 50 in the semi-apocalyptic world of 2018.
The novel is told through the third person present tense and as befits a five year old narrator, the perspective is introspective, sensitive and almost magical. We see everything through Bit’s eyes as he grows up in this world of beauty, nature, and utter freedom. He is a passive child, picked up and carried everywhere, accepted into all situations where he watches and listens. The prose is written in short sentences and without quotation marks, allowing the adult conversation to flow into the thoughts of the boy and build up the childlike impressions of the world of community living. Groff is clever at exploring how Bit is trying to make sense of his world through his childish logic mostly gleaned from the Grimm’s Fairy tales he reads obsessively.
Parts of the world click into shape, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But the puzzle is alive, it grows; new pieces appear for him to fit together faster than he can gather them in his mind
The descriptions of Arcadia come with a vast amount of beautifully written detail. At one point Bit reminds himself to,
Pay attention… Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath
Groff a warm and eloquent writer is paying attention to the passing breath and her prose is rich and dense and occasionally overwhelming. There is a heaviness to the early sections of the book, a biblical attention to detail that creates a static effect in terms of plot. However, some of the writing though is truly magical. Bit sleeps ‘like a hickory nut within the shell of his parents’; thoughts in his mind ‘tumble over one another in his head all afternoon, like a small room packed with toddlers’ while his disappointment ‘wings itself, a trapped bird, around the room’. The use of language gives the book a sense of magic realism, which seeps into the plot on occasion as Bit enters his mother’s dreams, a man disappears in a hot air balloon and a character may or may not be a figment of a lonely boy’s imagination.
Groff depicts commune life in incredible detail. There are different tribes, the Kidlets, the Hens, the Trippies and the Newbies, characters have wonderful names like Titus, Armand Hammer and Sweety Fox while children are called Lief, Eden or Pooh. In the descriptions of bread-making, music, celebration and in particular, child birth, it sometimes feels like Groff is as idealistic as her characters.
this is exactly what makes Arcadia great: this attention to potential, this patience for the individual, the necessary space for the expansion of the soul
She never judges or mocks these characters, if anything they are presented in an overly positive light.
Jeannise had sex with both Hank and Horse, and now the twins aren’t talking to one another. Which is bad because they’re the Sanitation Crew and pump out the loos
But like the Grimm’s fairytales favoured by Bit, communal life has a dark side – hunger and hard work, drugs and sex taken to the extreme and eventually cracks start to appear with the emergence of a clear hierarchy and the commune attracting the criminal and the damaged. Arcadia becomes a victim of its own success.
The third part of the book follows Bit, twenty years later, now resident in New York, still trying to find a perfect way to live outside of his beloved Arcadia. He remains a believer in fairy tales, only the tales he cherishes now are those of his own childhood. He can’t quite let go of his belief that there is a better way to live. Groff shoehorns in a lot of detail here as we catch up on Arcadia’s past inhabitants and find out what has happened in the intervening years. This creates an interesting narrative sweep and emotional resonance as Bit notes the comparisons between communal living and modern city living and finds the bonds he created as a child to be lasting and true.
All of us kids are here, almost all of the kids from Arcadia, are here in the city. We’ve gone urban because we’re all looking for what we lost. This is the only place that approximates it. The closeness. The connection. Do you understand? It doesn’t exist anymore anywhere else.
The final section of the book takes place in 2018 where a SARS like pandemic is sweeping the world and Bit comes full circle, returning to Arcadia with his daughter to look after his dying mother. The adult Bit, like the child he once was, is again trying to help his mother and make sense of a changing and often terrifying world.
Arcadia is a beautifully written book, which ultimately reads like a love letter not to communal living but to the bond between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. It is intense, often overwhelmingly so and the prose is so poetic, so thoughtful that it can be hard to separate the character of Bit from the author herself.
I do wish that Groff would have allowed Bit to question his upbringing more. Passages where the children of Arcadia take acid or sexual experimentation goes too far are presented but not explored in depth – the fairy tale never becomes dark enough, however as a critique of how we live our lives and find our way in an often incomprehensible world, it is beautifully wrought.
He thinks of the rotten parachute they played with as kids in Arcadia: they hurtle through life aging unimaginably fast, but each grasps a silken edge of memory that billows between them and softens the long fall
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