The question of what literary fiction is, or isn’t, is one that both frustrates and fascinates me. I’ve read many novels designated literary and not understood what distinguishes them from really well-written commercial fiction (now sometimes referred to as upmarket commercial). One criterion common to the various definitions of literary fiction is that the writing itself, the use of language, the choice of words, is paramount. Sometimes you just know it when you see it, and I don’t think there could ever have been any debate about where Lauren Groff’s writing belongs. Arcadia, which is one of my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012 is her second novel and her debut The Monsters of Templeton (2008) reached the New York Times bestseller list. She’s still only 33.
Both novels are ambitious but surprisingly different; in Arcadia, I missed the lightness of The Monsters of Templeton which was often (not always) very funny. Arcadia is much more reflective, not without humour, with a tone suited to a novel examining dreams and ideals and the way they clash with reality – big, serious themes. Most importantly, the confidence and distinctive style of Groff’s prose is equally evident in both.
Arcadia tells the story of a commune in western New York state from its earliest days in the 1970s, when a group of idealists set out to transform a dilapidated mansion and live in harmony with nature. The vehicle is the life of Ridley Sorrel Stone, known as ‘Bit’, the first baby born in Arcadia, through whose very close third person narrative all events are related. The novel is written in four parts (without chapters) corresponding to different timeframes and covers the full sweep from utopia to a near-future dystopia.
In the first part, Bit is just five years old. His parents, Hannah and Abe, along with strong-willed leader Handy and his wife Astrid and other founder members of the Free People, have just taken possession of the donated land to found a non-hierarchical society. Their many children run around unfettered in the outdoors, at any given moment many of the women are pregnant; monogamy is not necessarily part of the deal, but surrendering of personal possessions and contributing labour to the shared endeavour are, and units are established, including bakery, soy dairy, cannery, midwifery, motor pool. Some interaction with the Outside is essential to their survival but it is kept to a minimum and the children of Arcadia mostly grow up without setting foot there.
I found it quite difficult to get to grips with the voice in the opening section; it must be very challenging to write through a five year old’s perspective and the narration and observations are sometimes too eloquent and sophisticated.
He doesn’t know how long he sits. The trees whisper among themselves. Dusk falls, and the stone under him grows chill. There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts.
Bit’s mother Hannah is emotionally fragile and this, combined with the claustrophobic feel of the community, reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room and I’m aware this influenced my response. This aside (and really, what does it matter when the writing is so beautiful?), Lauren Groff paints a vivid picture of Arcadia, with noble ideals lived out in cold, discomfort, hunger and at times a shocking lack of compassion for those such as Hannah who struggle or fall short. We see enough of the main characters to sense what the future may hold and even at this tender age, Bit is clearly being damaged.
For me the novel really picked up in the second part, where Bit is 14 and seeing and questioning everything in a more adult way, and it went from strength to strength. I engaged with him as a character and also found it much easier to enjoy the sumptuous quality of the writing. Groff takes us deep inside his head, showing the lasting effects of formative experience; it is very intense and multi-sensory. Teenagers experience the same agonies wherever they grow up and Bit develops a bond with the beautiful but messed-up girl Helle that will affect his whole life. Arcadia has been overrun with hedonistic freeloaders who do not share its vision; the community is riven by conflict (human nature will out) and economic hardship and starts to fragment after attracting attention from law-enforcement. Not everything that happened there was good – it never was a perfect place and soon it will all be over.
I have no personal inclination to the lifestyle of Arcadia (and I would guess that is the case with most people who read the novel), so it surprised me how much I identified with the characters’ sadness at the failure of their dream.
There is a puncture in the world, and everything Bit knew about himself is escaping.
In the first half of the novel the author conveys developments over long periods of years by layering individual scenes, creating less of a flow than a gain in texture, rich in every sense. The third and final parts of the book show distinct phases in Bit’s life beyond Arcadia with more focus on particular events, although many of the original characters are still present. Even decades later, he can function in the outside world as a father and a university professor but feels an enduring disconnection with its consumerism and values, marked by all kinds of loss. It’s tough going through this with him – he’s not a very happy person – but I empathised with him and understood where he’d come from. I had to read this book slowly because it raises so many huge questions that I kept stopping to think: about life in cities, the environment, the effect of technology on society, what motivates people and what the future will be like (the final part is set in 2018).
Whatever kind of life you lead, Arcadia will make you take another look at it.
From the sublime….
Next week: NOT my usual kind of review, but a purely personal and subjective take on publishing phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey.