“We were like guests at the Mad Hatter’s table,” reflects one character in “Arcadia,” “but didn’t even know the world was flipped around.” In her second novel, author Lauren Groff traces the backwards and unusual life of Bit Stone, the child of hippies who help found the commune Arcadia in rural New York in the 1960s. Bit, who is as meek and passive as his name suggests, observes his strange world first through the eyes of a child and then, as the novel progresses, through the jaded and wounded perspective of a man in an increasingly confounding world. Through beautiful language that grounds the story in its natural landscape along with its focus on personal relationships, “Arcadia” forms a haunting and hopeful vision of love lost and gained.
Groff’s portrayal of Arcadia borders more on a cult than a happy-go-lucky land of hippies. Its inhabitants call themselves the “Free People,” and led by the charismatic but deeply flawed Handy, they dutifully recite mantras of yoga, organic produce, and equality. The vision of Arcadia is a world removed from outside influences, but as such utopian experiments are wont to do, it eventually descends into complete chaos. Early disturbing signs of control within the community presage its fall; the people may strive for a perfect world, but certain elements—like public “Critiques” of misbehaving citizens—lend this rural landscape a feeling more akin to the controlling and creepy cult of the film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” where its people were slowly brainwashed into surrendering their identity, than that of a gentle utopia. “Pain, when given its proper place in the human heart, can be a door that leads to a feeling of oneness with the Universe,” one resident intones. “This is a path to deeper empathy.” At times, indeed, elements of this cult-utopia border on the cliché—“May they rot in their bourgeois capitalist hell,” Bit’s mother Hannah angrily lashes out against her estranged parents—but ultimately, Groff’s powerful attention to detailed atmosphere overrides these somewhat uncreative elements.
Groff creates a novel lush with descriptions of beautiful landscapes and inner torment. Bit, who as a child knows no other world besides the several hundred acres of the commune, inevitably reflects on the land around him with the same natural language that describes Arcadia itself. In a period of self-imposed silence, his words lump like “a toad, in the cave of his throat.” Elsewhere, young children scatter like “a handful of seeds.” This distinct descriptive language elevates the forests and rolling hills to more than scenery; indeed, the world around Bit is nearly a character itself. This helps develop the powerful attachment that Bit—and perhaps even the reader—grows to have with the land of his youth.
Groff’s apt coupling of nature with memory provides ample emotional ground to traverse once the commune inevitably fails. Its fall is all the more devastating because of the loss of place as well as people: through Bit is sad to see his friends go, he is even more overwhelmed by the loss of the fragile but comforting environment of Arcadia, the only one he has ever known. “There is a puncture in the world,” Groff writes plaintively, “and everything Bit knew about himself is escaping.”
In addition to these melancholy tangents of memory, “Arcadia” highlights shortcomings of modern society through Bit’s ever watchful eyes and vivid imagination. The Arcadia commune may not have been perfect—Groff makes that abundantly clear—but what it did have was a pure focus on the power and sanctity of human connections. As a boy, Bit imagines the outside world as a monstrous place, filled not only with crime and hate, but also with the modern scourges of social loneliness and technological isolation. This perception does not change with time. “Every soul on the street is sunk within its own body,” he realizes sadly as he walks through New York City. “Sometimes Bit imagines that he, alone, bears witness to the world.”
Yet all is not gloom and doom in “Arcadia.” Much of the novel focuses on the powerful impact of personal relationships throughout Bit’s life. There is his mother Hannah, a stalwart yet sometimes fragile character who takes care of Bit as much as he takes care of her; his friend and great love Helle, a self-destructive and magnetic woman whose grip on Bit’s life lends him both joy and sorrow; and his daughter Grete, a perfect blend of Hannah and Helle, who helps Bit find redemption despite the losses and confusion in his life. The novel is told less in the style of a narrative than a biography, for the only consistent plot thread throughout the book is Bit’s gradual journey through life. Yet these strong emotional bonds between Bit and the three central women anchor the book and give it focus through its meandering reflections. With language rich like the earth Bit lovingly treads, Groff fleshes out each relationship to show all of its hidden pockmarks of connection and loss.
It is a fulfilling and well written novel that can find solace for a character despite a string of lifelong disconnects, and by the end of “Arcadia,” Groff does just that. “He loves the sediment of good time,” she writes about Bit, in an emotional revelation that is unexpected but relieving. Her subtle switch of Bit from a fearful child to a cautious but wise adult is thus compelling and realistic. His inability to escape his perspective on the world, so influenced by his early life, colors the novel with unique, heartrending descriptions. Groff perfectly inhabits the mind of her main character, and the prose that results is well suited to every situation Bit encounters. It is as natural and as poignant as the land of Arcadia itself.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.