Monday, March 12, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff's new novel, Arcadia, is a hypnotic, addicting book. Although this is not a plot-driven page-turner in the traditional sense, I found it hard to tear myself away. Two things impressed me enormously here: 

1. Unfiltered Point of View: Groff tells the story of Bit, a child born in a hippie commune, in three stages. In the first section he's a very young child, in the second a teenager, and in the third approaching middle age. Writing from a child's point of view is so dangerous -- it's so easy to send it into sentiment or to clunk it up with asides to the reader all the time. Sometimes you feel the author speaking through the child, trying to push through a meaning at you, and the character disappears. 

Not here. It was immediately obvious that the narration here, while in third person, would have no filter -- there's no "looking back on those days" or "now that he was older." In fact, there is no intrusion between the reader and the child's authentic consciousness. What he sees we see. What he feels we feel. And the things that we as adult readers can piece together from his experience are our own to interpret. That was awesome. 

The part where Bit goes silent, the description of what that was like for him -- really masterful writing.

2. Cast of Thousands: Groff has a huge cast in a fairly short novel yet they never bleed into each other and become muddy. Somehow she deftly maintains the uniqueness of a lot of characters that are very similar in context. And while these hippies are so close to ridiculous -- the nakedness, the soy everything, the language of love revolution -- they never become cartoons. Many of these images, many of these phrases now make us roll our eyes. The outfits sound like Halloween costumes. Yet these people are so real on the page, so specific to themselves, it's impossible to dismiss them as caricatures or deny them as wholly rounded, interesting characters with their own lives, their own identities within the demographic they typify. 

photo: Sarah McKune
One of my favorite things about feeling like I have "backstage access" is that I'm emboldened to ask authors questions about their novels. Because I'm me, and quite fixated on the actual structure and construction of books, I am focusing my questions as I have been focusing my reviews: on craft. This time, I was able to ask Lauren Groff a question about her methodology in handling such a mass of characters. Here's what she said:

LN: As I was reading, I kept trying to figure out how you were managing to seamlessly keep all these balls in the air with all these different characters -- I mean SO many! And to my eye, you never resorted to the easy route of just categorizing them and referencing that. Can you talk about how you approached this -- did you originally have more or fewer characters, did you take out anyone in revisions, did you consciously bring back references to characters if we had been too long without hearing of them (like in the middle section)? For example, there were several times when Sweetie was mentioned that I thought, I wonder if this is a nudge to my brain so I don't forget who Sweetie is?
LG: This is a marvelous question because it made me go all the way back to the very long drafting process and try to noodle through what I had done. In the end, I think I'd made a kind of character palimpsest: I made very long profiles of about forty of the important characters, I made a physical map of the way the characters related to one another, and I tried to see how they would pop up in the later sections. I hope I didn't try to nudge your brain to keep in mind who a character was--that's taking you out of the story, which I'd hate to do!--but the very short answer is: oh my gosh, that was a very long time ago, so maybe? If the character is useful later, maybe it's good to nudge your brain once in a while to keep in mind who they are. 
(Aside: I think I was really looking hard for the scaffolding here, and I don't think these references were heavy-handed or noticeable at all. I actually think it was gracefully invisible and impressed the hell out of me.) 
LN: I have one tiny extra bonus question, because I was really curious, while reading the last section especially -- do you see this as Bit's story really, or is it ultimately Hannah's story?

LG: Oh, I love you for saying that. I think that, though Bit is the point-of-view character, it's really the story of both mother and son. I probably meant to make it Bit's story, but because I'm a mother, like Hannah, and because my eldest son really shares a lot of Bit's soul, I couldn't help but make it also Hannah's story.
Confession: Hannah is my favorite character. Her experiences really illustrate, to my eye, the agony and the ecstasy of the Arcadian experience in ways that Bit, who doesn't know any better, can't possibly show. Yet she is never in the foreground, never takes up the full screen -- the restraint that Groff demonstrates in allowing this character to exist so completely through the lens of another is really majestic. 

To sum up. At one point in the book, someone articulates the priorities of the Arcadia commune: hard work, poverty, simple food, and community. Somehow, it all goes awry. Yet it is not only in the beginning that it is beautiful and in the end that it's terrible. In the small ways, in the real ways, it's beautiful and terrible all the way through.

Arcadia launches tomorrow. Find Lauren Groff on Twitter and tell her happy launch day. 


  1. Thank you so much for these reviews, Lydia. I love that you approach literature from a writing process point of view. Very insightful. Also, I feel I have to thank you for your ballsiness (i.e. just asking the authors what you want to know) :). Yay balls!

  2. Sarla Devi is skilled and educated astrologer and she studied astrology in well-known university of India. She always put more efforts in order to solve all the major issues of his valuable guests.

    Kala jadu For Love