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'Arcadia': From an idealized childhood to the mess of real life
Lauren Groff's new novel, "Arcadia," is the gentle tale of a child of a utopian commune who grows up into the messiness of real life.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Lauren Groff
Voice, 291 pp., $25.99
Ridley Sorrel Stone, aka Bit — so nicknamed when a grocer gazed at his infant self and said, "Oh, well, if that ain't the littlest bit of a hippie ever made!" — is a dreamer. Abandoned by his wife and puzzled by the world, he sits in a New York diner and imagines that all the people there "become their better selves." The weary cooks come cartwheeling out of the kitchen, and the monotone customers suddenly raise their voices in song. This in turn begins to wake the city residents "one by one, from their own dark dreams, and all across the island, people sit up in bed and listen to it lap around them, an ocean of kindness, filling them, making them forget all the evil leaching out of the world for a very long moment, making them forget everything but the song."
"Arcadia," Lauren Groff's fine second novel (her first was the 2008 "The Monsters of Templeton," followed by the short story collection "Delicate Edible Birds"), reads like a long and lovely dream; its edges seem soft and blurry, as if fading just a bit in memory. It's told from the point of view of Bit, in four sections: Bit as a small child in the early 1970s, growing up on the commune Arcadia; Bit as an adolescent, experiencing the events that lead to his break with the community; Bit as a husband and father coping with the sudden disappearance of his wife; and finally (in a section set in the future; there's a reference to a poetry anthology "of 2018's" selected best) a middle-aged Bit, helping his ailing mother and teenage daughter find just a drop of that "ocean of kindness."
Kindness seems to sweep through this book: Groff has a gentle touch when writing about the commune, which is the sort of place that seems like a utopia (its initial charter specifies that its residents will live "pure and truthful lives," spent together "in love and kindness") but is nonetheless riddled with hypocrisy and misjudgment. (I finished "Arcadia" thinking I'd also like to read a novel from the point of view of Handy, the folk-singing founder of Arcadia who makes enigmatic cameo appearances throughout this book.) We see how tiny Bit sees this place as a haven, feeling safe in his parents' strong arms; how he falls in love with a troubled fellow child of Arcadia (Helle; another too briefly glimpsed character who could sustain her own book); how he comes to learn, later, that he fled to the big city not only to escape Arcadia but to find it again — in the closeness and side-by-side community urban crowding brings.
The final section of "Arcadia" has the sad messiness of real life: the painful, unromanticized death of a character of whom we've grown fond; the slow realization that some questions will never have answers. But Bit, a soft-voiced everyman, guides us quietly through the mess and the chaos, first at Arcadia, then in the world that he creates for himself — one where he finds room to appreciate "the hushed spaces in life." He will pay attention, he reminds himself (and us), "Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath."