by Stefanie Brook Trout
Lauren Groff’s newly published second novel, Arcadia, opens in the 1960’s on a hippie commune in upstate New York, but it doesn’t stay there. The book spans approximately fifty years of the life of Ridley Sorrel Stone, the “oldest soul in Arcadia” whose birth on the caravan is a legend by the time he is five years old. Ridley goes by Bit because of his three-pound birth weight—“the littlest bit of a hippie ever made”—and small size he retains through adulthood, and the story is told in little bits, brief episodes glimpsed through Bit’s perspective. Throughout the book, Bit loves and loses, but rarely are those moments distinct from one another. Arcadia is a story about both the ugly side of wonderful and the beautiful side of terrible.
Following a one-page prologue in which the close third-person protagonist narrates from in utero, the rest of Arcadia is broken up into four parts, each of which consist of several episodes ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages separated by white space. The first chapter, “City of the Sun,” is set on the commune where Bit is only five years old but more aware of his surroundings than the adults, who are blinded by love, ego, survival, and/or drugs. Chapter two, “Heliopolis,” flashes forward to fourteen-year-old Bit, falling in love and sharing a swollen commune with nine hundred Arcadians. Eventually tragedy pulls the community apart. As crises causes Arcadia’s numbers to spiral downward, Bit’s parents debate the relative merits of staying or leaving. Chapter three, “Isles of the Blest,” flashes forward decades into the future and Bit’s adulthood in New York City, where he has retained the magic of his youth through photography. The final chapter, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” flashes still forward. A different tragedy brings Bit back to Arcadia, which “without people […] is only land,” but through the event’s ugliness, Bit is able to see that “all is well in the world.”
I was inherently interested in reading a book about a commune, where dozens of hippies do yoga together, midwives strip down to deliver babies in the buff, and everyone enjoys vegan meals together, but the opening line was almost too much for me: “The women in the river, singing.” Bit insists on remembering this event, though he wasn’t born for another three weeks. The effect of the prologue, however, is to force the question of Bit’s reliability as a narrator. Either he is impossibly aware or the facts with which he presents the reader do not reflect reality. The story is narrated realistically, but the women in Bit’s life suggest that what he remembers to be true could be unconscious workings of his imagination. The book consistently omits quotation marks, rendering the dialogue ambiguous. When do the spoken words stop and Bit’s thoughts on them begin?
The prologue also introduces two motifs critical to understanding Bit’s perspective. “He has always loved the voices of women,” and in a sense this book is more about Bit’s women than Bit himself. Bit also prefers to be incubated from the world, whether by his mother’s womb, by a commune that sets itself apart, or by the darkrooms that he retreats to in adulthood. The outside world frightens him. It is “too much,” “too full of terror and beauty.”
As Bit matures and as the setting of Arcadia moves in time and space, the book’s language evolves. What the cynical adult Bit calls the “doubleplusgood duckspeak” from his youth, when starvation is euphemized as a form of yoga, becomes more honest as technology and disease distinguish Bit’s new world and embitter his worldview. The level of characterization also changes throughout the book. In the first chapter, Bit introduces approximately fifty characters, each of whom plays a distinct role in his life. By the second chapter, “herds of Trippies,” who should be accompanied by their ”Minders,” and crowds of “Newbies,” “freeloaders,” and “Runaways” swarm anonymously around Bit, whose love for Arcadia derived from a love of community. After Arcadia peaks and starts to collapse upon itself, the cast of characters to whom Bit pays mind dwindles. “Sometimes Bit imagines that he, alone, bears witness to the world,” but with age he sees less and less until he realizes that he too has “become a person who stopped noticing.”
I initially did not appreciate the chapter breaks and their jarring jumps through time. At the beginning of each chapter, I felt like I was reading a new book featuring the same narrator. In fact, Arcadia could have been broken up into four books comprising a mini-series. Each chapter has a new setting in time and place, new characters, and new conflicts. Bit fills in the skipped time with flashbacks, but these are only brief snapshots that must be developed individually before they can be assembled as a whole. I especially would have preferred a chapter in between the second and third since that temporal leap is the greatest, but overall I came to appreciate Groff’s structural strategy and the sense of mystery it created.
Bit learned to read by studying a book of Grimms’ fairy tales, a book that he found and hid as contraband since personal property was forbidden at Arcadia. He tried to cast the people around him as characters in those magical stories where good always triumphed over evil and everyone lives happily every after. Arcadia is a story about good and evil, but unlike fairy tales, the two sides do not diametrically oppose each other but are taken together. That which made the commune wonderful also led to its downfall. That which provoked Bit to fall in love also insured that his heart would be broken. And the tragedies that destroyed Arcadia and individuals who beheld it also made them stronger. In composing Arcadia, Groff thought of everything. She played with structure, characterization, setting, and language to evoke themes in a seamless way that appears effortless, though as a writer I know better.