Going to Arcadia, with flowers in their hair
Thirty-three-year-old Lauren Groff calls herself a “soft-label” Luddite. She thinks the best decision she and her husband made when they moved to Gainesville, Florida, was not to own a television.
She wrote the first drafts of her beautifully chiaroscuro second novel Arcadia in notebooks and on legal pads before reluctantly turning on her computer. She occasionally goes on “digital fasts”—no email, no web surfing, no computer, period—to slow down her brain.
On the other hand, she sure likes Twitter.
“I’m in a place where I don’t come into contact with other writers almost ever, so I go to Twitter to be part of the conversation,” says Groff, who won critical acclaim for her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton. “I think [connecting with people] is what technology does so well. But you have to be very vigilant of it taking over because it is really seductive.”
The skeptical, vigilant part of Groff’s views about technology—along with her desire for community—is shared by the central character of Arcadia, the extraordinarily good-hearted Ridley Sorrel Stone. Called “Bit” since childhood because of his tiny size, he achieves in the novel’s final section, set in 2018 when he is 50 years old, a hard-won equanimity, if not exactly happiness. A smallish example of that is his grudging acceptance of his 14-year-old daughter’s ever-present eReader.
The subject of technology is just one slim thread in the novel’s rich tapestry of story exploring how we sustain hope and idealism in a world that presents us with unavoidable sadness and sometimes seems bent on its own annihilation.
Groff explains that she began writing Arcadia when she was pregnant with her first son, Beckett, to whom the novel is dedicated. “It came out of an enormous amount of anxiety and guilt about bringing a child into the world,” says Groff, who recently gave birth to a second son. “In early drafts the novel was much more dystopian than it is in the final draft. But with Beckett’s arrival, I had to have hope. So the book grew as he grew. He is for me inextricable from the character of Bit and lends a lot of his personality and observations to the character. It’s not a single thing, just the whole amazing majesty of little boyhood.”
In Groff's novel, a sensitive boy negotiates the path from an idyllic commune to the world "outside."
Indeed, Bit is an extraordinary boy. Deeply sensitive, keenly observant and empathetic, he is innocent, without being naïve. When the novel proper opens in 1973, he is a five-year-old living with his parents in a hippie commune called Arcadia, located in New York state, not very far, as the imagination flies, from Cooperstown, where Groff grew up.
Arcadia is at first an idyllic place. Among the ragamuffin band of commune children, Bit is both a cherished insider and solitary child who wanders in a vividly rendered, forested, fairy-tale landscape that has less to do with Disney than the Brothers Grimm.
“There is a lot of mythology and fairy tale in this book and in everything I write,” Groff says. “The Grimms were my uncles when I was growing up. I loved their horrible stories when I was little, and they form a part of my cultural DNA. Being a bookish, shy teenager in upstate New York, where there is really nothing to do in the summer, I also read a lot of Greek myths . . . so they’re part of my life and they’re associated with that part of the country, too.”
“Myths and fairy tales, especially Grimm fairy tales, have a very frank way of looking at the world that has been sanitized in most children’s stories today,” Groff adds. “A sensitive child will pick up on that, especially because life is savage in a lot of ways. Bit in particular responds very deeply to the Grimms because they help him to articulate what is wrong with his world, or at least show him how to read his world.”
If what is right about this Utopia is embodied by Bit and his parents, what is wrong is illustrated by the crash-and-burn life of Bit’s best friend and soul mate, Helle, the unloved daughter of the commune’s narcissistic guru, Handy. In Groff’s narrative, the relationship between Bit and Helle is both sublime and achingly painful.
“Even though a lot of the children who come out of these communities grow up to be amazing, freethinking, stunning human beings, a lot of them are damaged,” Groff says. “It’s hard not to damage your children just in general, even if you live within society. Living outside of society you surely do some sort of trauma to your kids. It was fascinating for me to think about the impact of something so entirely good-intentioned on innocent people who aren’t yet able to make their own decisions.”
Groff’s vibrant depiction of commune life—its light and its darkness—arises from a combination of imagination and research. Groff points out that in the early 19th century the region of New York where she grew up was a hotbed of social and religious ferment and home to dozens of utopianist communities. During her research Groff visited Oneida, New York, home to the Oneida Community in the 1860s, and The Farm, an ongoing commune founded by 1960s-era hippies in Summertown, Tennessee. “You feel a lower-level boil,” she says of The Farm, now home to a smaller group. “But you can tell what it had been at one point. There’s still a beautiful sense of peace.”
Like most real-life, 1960s-era communes, the fictional Arcadia begins to fall apart, a victim of its successes and its excesses, just as Bit is entering the tumult of adolescence. He and the other children carry their confusion and their longing with them as they are forced “Outside,” as they call it. And that mix of emotions—portrayed by Groff with psychological acuity and stylistic daring—roils Bit’s life well into adulthood.
“Stories tell you what they need,” Groff says of her decision to continue Bit’s story until he enters his 50s. “And I eventually did realize this story needed to be a man’s story. I knew Bit so deeply as a child and then as an adolescent that I really had no qualms in writing about him as a man.”
About the overriding architecture of her carefully structured novel, however, Groff says she had many qualms. “The architecture of fiction is one of the most urgent things for me. I have to find those parallel resonances between structure and story; I have to know the story inside and out before I know the shape of the house around it.”
The shape of Arcadia’s house was especially challenging because, Groff says, returning to a recurrent theme of our conversation, “at its base this book is an argument with myself for hope. This is a time when, if you pay enough attention, it sometimes seems naïve to have hope for the future. I fought very deeply with myself to find out how I really believe it will be. It was a long, protracted struggle. And I ended up on the side of transcendence.”