My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lauren Groff’s lovely and poignant Arcadia is a novel of sublime sensuality. It is redolent of the ripe, husky scent of pot and unwashed bodies, the strumming of guitars and gasps of lovemaking, the taste of warm blackberries plucked from the bush and popped into the mouth, the glow of naked flesh in moonlight, the feel of a mother’s soft, full breast, of a father’s muscled, callused hands.
The key to the novel’s earthy nature is its narrator, Bit, who begins his story at the age of five. Children are the most sensual of human beings; they live in the moment, using all their senses in equal measure, without discernment, complete in their physical selves and open to the world as it unfolds.
Bit is one of several dozen residents of a growing commune, Arcadia, in upstate New York. Arcadia takes shape in the early 1970’s – shortly after Bit’s birth – as a scattered collection of musicians, hippies, romantics, runaways and recovering drug addicts move from a hovel of tents, shacks and buses into a dilapidated mansion. There they create a home, a life sustained by communal work, education, friendship, music, sex and drugs. Bit is raised to adolescence in this agrarian Utopia, separated from the hazards of the world (which include sugar, animal by-products, television and currency), surrounded by the constancy of his parents, Abe and Hannah, and by a community that protects and embraces this quiet and keen observer.
It seems to me that residents of a commune choose the most child-like way of life, striving to accept the world on its terms, trusting in the willingness of their fellow residents to work and play together in harmony. Yet, children are also selfish creatures, who cooperate and share only when it is in their best interest. The residents of Arcadia play at leaderless democracy, but into the void between communal decision making and anarchy, steps the charismatic father-figure Handy and his Scandinavian goddess-wife Astrid. Even those who openly resist his authority, including Bit’s parents, seek his approval. Handy creates Arcadia in his own image, yet follows none of his own rules, becoming the serpent that brings Eden to the point of collapse.
Groff’s language and syntax are intoxicating. She writes in lush and languid tones, as Bit rotates through years harmonious and troubled. At times the scenes are heavy with malaise, as Bit witnesses the grind of his mother’s midwinter depression. At times they are as pointed as a young girl’s hipbones, as she exposes her characters to brutality and desperation. And at times they are hushed and soft, as we watch a man and his daughter give comfort to a loved one during her final days. Groff offers us Bit’s perspective in third-person present tense, which allows us to experience Arcadia in real time, to be as present as the characters, to exist within a child’s mind yet to remain detached observers.
Bit’s story continues into his adolescence, which is set against the Reagan years of the Cold War and rising American prosperity. The story ends in a future most of us can see if we squint and tilt our heads just so. Bit is now a father of a teenager and returns to the site of the old commune to care for his dying mother. The world is in quarantine, retreating from a deadly flu flung out from Southeast Asia.
Bit’s life moves from Utopia to Armageddon. But when Bit returns to the place where his life began, he is able to recapture the spirit of hope of its best times and set free the bitter demons of its worst. Through the grace of Groff’s rich prose, the reader moves in bittersweet concert with Bit and with the dream that is Arcadia.