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.
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By Clare Stein. Lauren Groff is a writer of ambitious, richly felt, and deeply sensitive fiction. The release of her newest novel, Arcadia , has generated positive reviews and high expectations. The novel, which begins on a commune in the late s and continues through generations to come, is largely character-driven, but Groff also relies on the tenets of historical fact while weaving in wisps of fairy tales.
Arcadia sits on the cusp of magic realism, and Groff herself is guided by superstition and magical thinking. Groff told us about her conventional childhood, being creeped out by former communes, the practical use of fairytales, and seeing ghosts everywhere.
Did your childhood resemble those environs? My childhood was as conventional as you could get. I think I probably created Arcadia with a certain amount of wishful thinking. I would have loved to have more looseness and freedom and community. I sat in my studio and dreamt for hours at a time about what my ideal place would be. And that ended up being Arcadia.
STEIN: I have heard people say that your protagonist, Bit, is one of their favorite literary characters, especially in the beginning of the novel, when is character is a child.
Did real kids inform that character? I began this book while I was pregnant and while I watched my first child be born and become a unique human being. Bit became a character at the same time that my son became fully a human. I love Bit so much because I wrote my son into him. Actually, I grieve a little now. GROFF: I thought that was a fascinating way to react to the pressure and tension in the world around him.
As a person, I do ascribe to a lot of magical thinking myself. I am very superstitious, and I think this is something that Bit also shares. It can help you alleviate a lot of tension in your life. I wear things like a baseball player wears things that are supposed to have luck. I am superstitious about everything.
It helps him read the world around him. They create these worlds of horror that at the same time are containable. People can learn about a certain amount of pain, and it always ends fine in the story. What attracted you to the era when the novel begins, the late s? GROFF: I see history as really cyclical in terms of the intense idealism, and the desire to create a better life outside of societal norms. In America, possibly because of whatever the American dream is, this happens over and over again.
These eras repeat. We ebb out of them and come into them again. There always is some sort of urge to escape and self-isolate. Is Arcadia house a real place? The first one was Oneida, in upstate New York, which was phenomenally interesting. They did some tremendously advanced things, but at the same time everyone in the community was married to one another and they also had a horrifying eugenics program.
That was the basis of the actual, physical house. It was extraordinarily successful for a very long time and then under the weight of all of its needs collapsed. I stayed there for a few days and it was an amazing thing to walk by these year-old buses in the wood and see things growing up through them. People used to live in those buses! GROFF: I see ghosts everywhere, and that is partially a function of my being incredibly near-sighted and reading way too late into the night.
I think it was about four years ago when I stayed there, and I got up in the middle of the night, so anxious, so unsettled. There was something happening in the room, some sort of strange energy, and I went for a walk through the hall.
I was so creeped out that I went back to my room and started jotting down notes for whatever this project was going to end up being. It definitely had an atmospheric impression on the book. STEIN: Do you pine for that isolated commune life—that back-to-the-earth mentality—or would you rather be an observer, living your normal life, watching other people have that radical experience? So: no and yes, and I guess creating this book was a way to be able to live in an ideal community without having to leave my life as it is now.
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An outhouse at Arcadia smells like wet muskrat. Children are reared in a Kid Herd. Groff has taken a quaint, easily caricatured community and given it true universality, not just the knee-jerk kind that Arcadian platitudes espoused. Even more unexpectedly, she has expanded this period piece so that it stretches from to , coaxing forth a remarkable amount of suspense from the way her characters change over time. And a book that might have been small, dated and insular winds up feeling timeless and vast.