Arcadia, By Lauren Groff
Paradise lost: chronicle of one boy's life in a hippy commune
Arcadia, the title of Lauren Groff's second novel, is also the self-mythologising name of the hippie commune in which it's largely set. It's the early Seventies, and we begin with a five-year-old child's take on the commune – the innocent, rose-tinted views of Ridley "Bit" Stone. Groff has a good sense of those peculiar connections you make when you're young. But his child's logic begins to impact painfully and strangely when Bit's mother becomes depressed. Bit stops speaking, to save her from her mysterious illness: to his young mind, fed on the Grimms' fairytales, this pact of silence, a deal with the universe, makes total sense.
Groff's style also winks at the youth of its protagonist: although written in the third person, she uses staccato, brief sentences in the present tense to build up the observations of Bit's young life: "He smells the bread of his mother, feels the wind carrying the cold." There are no speech marks, either, letting adult talk swirl among the rich, sensual, yet child-like impressions. Sometimes this creates an immediate sense of people and place; sometimes it's all a bit thick. Groff is also fond of imaginative verbing: "the river greening around the bend"; "sheets ghosting in the dark"; "pussy willows velvet the banks".
The portrayal of the hippie commune veers near to parody, but never quite has a sting, and Groff holds off on either explicit judgement or mockery. The scene is set with devastating detail, however, from the choice of sing-alongs ("Michael, Row the Boat Ashore") to the skills the "Kid Herd" are taught: they know how to "knit their own socks and cultivate grains and vegetables ... and make anything at all from soy". A sense of joy and wonder at this with-the-land way of living is generously created too; Groff, at one level, is easily as idealistic as her characters.
In part two of the novel, Bit is 14. Out go the simple, childish short thoughts, but the language occasionally becomes too theoretical. Would he really, during a lesson, think, "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"? This sounds more like the author pointing out the benefits of alternative living.
Perhaps Groff is just straining for balance as, narratively, things start to go wrong. Cracks traced in the first part now spread, and the fault lines are what you'd expect: the emergence of hierarchy; a charismatic leader making moves on young girls; the commune attracting too many of the damaged, the criminal, and the lost.
Part three shoots us forward 20 years, and the final part takes us up to 2018, a world rent apart by global warming and viral pandemics. This can lead to some clunky gap-filling and date-and-detail shoe-horning in, but it also gives the novel an impressive narrative sweep.
As an adult, Bit is still holding on to fairytales, but now they are the tales of his origins, or dreams of a perfect way of life shared absolutely with one person. These are the most dangerous, as Bit knows ("They can wound, stories, they can blister"), even if he can't resist them any more than he could resist the world of the Brothers Grimm as a child.
With Arcadia, Groff has woven her own tale, in eloquent prose that's rich in sense of place and depth of feeling, even if its idealism can get a little cloying.
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