Published just this year, Lauren Groff’s novel Arcadia has been receiving praise and coveted spots in the “what’s popular now?” sections in bookstores across the country. Arcadia’s brightly colored cover and Greek title are eye-catching. I saw the work at my local bookstore and quickly snatched it. When I discovered that the book was about hippies with interesting names such as Bit and Handy, I immediately purchased the book and hurried home to start reading. The back cover boasts Richard Russo’s compliment “Richly peopled and ambitious and oh, so lovely, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is one of the most moving and satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” Unfortunately, I would have to heartily disagree with Russo’s praise. In my opinion, Groff was trying to show off – a feat in which she sadly fails.
Groff tries to impress her audience when she names a hippie commune after an ancient Greek location that was home to the god Pan. If you look up the word Arcadia, you will find that the area “was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.” This is a common utopian ideal, especially for a hippie commune. Not surprisingly, Groff’s Arcadia turns out to be less-than-utopian. It is cute that she gives some of the main characters Greek names like Titus and Helle. But Groff’s cleverness does not stop there! She tries to use as many uncommon words as possible to show her smarts – words like “giardia,” “ujjayi,” and “syzygy” jostle for space on the page.
A few comments about Groff’s writing style: The story is told from the point of view of a child named Bit and follows him all the way from the womb to adulthood. Groff’s style is reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness style and doesn’t utilize a single quotation mark. The entire story is told in the present tense and is divided into four large sections. The lack of chapters and general writing style combine to create a fast-moving story that exhausts the reader.
Most stories exclude the mention of bodily functions, but you will find no lack of them in Arcadia. Because the members of Arcadia share everything, there is a general lack of modesty and a general acceptance of bodily functions. In the novel, you will find mention of flatulence, defecation, menstruation, and even a vivid birth scene in which young Bit crawls into Eden’s bed during the birthing process and is dismayed when he finds that the sheets are covered in excrement. The minute-to-minute, everyday descriptions eventually wear the reader out.
There is a big focus on pregnancy and birth in this novel. It seems as if there is always a naked pregnant woman nearby, a baby sucking a nipple, or a reference to sex/ fertility. Furthermore, Bit has an odd, sexual connection with his mother. There are multiple instances when they sleep in the same bed or kiss each other on the mouth. Every few pages, we “hear” Bit thinking about how nice it is to be pressed into the warmth of his mother or another woman. This odd focus on close human connection represents the fact that the original members of Arcadia are like one large body. They take care of each other and share everything from food to clothing to their own beds. I realize what Groff was trying to represent here, but it comes off in an uncharacteristically nauseating form of metaphor.
As I mentioned earlier, the main character in the story is Bit, a tiny boy who is referred to as the “littlest Bit of hippie.” Bit is so full of care for others that it almost hurts. His deepest belief is that “People are good and want to be good, as long as you give them a chance” (98). His sympathetic disposition comes back to hurt him on multiple occasions and he ends up spending the majority of his life taking care of others. His parents, who he always refers to by name, are Hannah and Abe. Hannah is often described as strong, like the sun/ summer, or bread-like in her warmth. Bit’s mother sinks into a depression every winter when the sun no longer shines. Similarly, as Bit ages, his mother fails into decay and deteriorates in front of her son’s eyes. Bit’s father, Abe, is a stolid, quiet man who gets things done. It is his motivation that leads to the restoration of a mansion called – big surprise – Arcadia House. Abe wins the admiration of the prophet figure of the Arcadians, a hippie musician named Handy. Eventually, Abe grows apart from Handy and falls off a roof. He breaks his neck and ends up paralyzed from the waist down. Abe is later known by his granddaughter as “Grumpy” and is referred to as a “bastard” at his funeral.
Section I: City of the Sun
The first section of Groff’s novel follows Bit though his tragic and silent childhood as he is raised in a hippie commune bereft of creature comforts such as indoor toilets, tampons, and televisions. The members of Arcadia are not allowed to have personal belongings, but Bit finds a storybook in the mansion and keeps it close to him at all times, eventually teaching himself to read. He reads a story in which a girl must be silent for two years in order to lift a curse from her brothers. The already quiet Bit doesn’t utter a sound for at least a year.
This section includes a small focus on Helle, promising that she will become important later. She is repeatedly described as unattracitve, frog-like, and always wailing. Although members of the commune are poor, they work hard to feed themselves, take care of their children, and restore the mansion that later becomes the living quareters for hudreds of hippies, trippies, runaways, and pregnant teens. The reader can see the brilliant utopian ideal of Arcadia that sits behind the reality of what the hippie commune really is.
Section II: Heliopolis
This section covers Bit’s adolescence. He has finally begun to talk and make friends with the other boys. He falls in with a tight group of guys who get into all sorts of adventures including drugs and pranks. Bit starts to learn about sex in this section. He is attracted to Helle, but younger and smaller than the rest of her suitors. There is a touching scene during which Bit prematurely ejaculates at a simple touch from Helle.
It is in this section when the failures of the hippie commune become evident. Bit tells Helle that his parents will have enough money to last them through the winter if they sell their secret crop of pot. Helle takes advantage of the trusting Bit and steals most of the crop for her own purposes. Later, police cause problems for the Arcadians when they find marajuana and LSD in large amounts on the property. Handy is thrown in jail again and a fire destroys one of the quonsets and kills a baby. At the end of the section, the Arcadians are few and starving. Bit’s family is one of the last to move from Arcadia into the city.
Section III: Isles of the Blest
We suddenly find ourselves in the far future. Bit has completed college in Philadelphia and is married to Helle, who has spent considerable time in rehab and has an ex-husband. Bit and Helle spend one year in a farmhouse in old Arcadia and as a result now have a daughter named Grete. It seems that Bit is taken advantage of once again when Helle “goes for a walk” and never comes back. The reader never discovers what happened to Helle.
This section of the novel focuses on Bit’s grief, his relationship with Grete, and Bit’s job as a teacher. He suffers from unwanted sexual advances by one of his students, struggles to interact with women, and finds raising a daughter who reminds him so much of his missing wife challenging. Throughout this section, Bit continually reminisces and misses his childhood days in Arcadia. But eventually, with Helle’s voice in mind, he realizes that “gold dust settles over memory and makes it shine” (236). Maybe his childhood wasn’t so perfect, afterall.
Section IV: Garden of Earthly Delights
As Bit continues to age and raise his daughter, his parents start a surprising decline. Abe commits suicide and Hannah is diagnosed with a deteriorating disease that slowly eats away at her body. A pestilence begins overseas and hundreds die of the mysterious “SARI” every day. Bit and Grete, along with a nurse named Luisa, move into the eco-friendly house that Abe built before his death in order to better care for Hannah and distance themselves from the disease. Hannah’s condition continues to worsen until she is a prisoner within her own body, unable to feed herself or speak without the aid of a computer. As the pestilence ravages the real world, Bit’s world – his mother – dies slowly in front of him. Fortunately, both Bit and Hannah have come to accept the fact of her death by the time she passes away. The ending of the book is comparable to spring; a new beginning: Bit and Grete prepare to move back to the city, the pestilence has been defeated, and Bit has found a new lover in a doctor named Ellis.
Like many books published these days, Arcadia focuses on the depressing side of humanity; pain and loss are prevalent – and are so much more vivid due to the main character’s big heart.
The storyline was interesting and the characterization was well developed. However, I did not enjoy Groff’s writing style and the all-too-common depressing mood of modern works. If you can look past the writing style and are looking for a present-day account of a hippie commune that is easy to read and isn’t upbeat, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is the way to go. Overall, a pretty boring book.
To close, I will share my favorite quote from Arcadia. Bit is eating alone in a diner and has an inspired moment when he ponders the plight of humanity and imagines a better world:
“He imagines snapping his fingers, making all the people in he diner stand, at once, and become their better selves. The woman with the cragged oak-bark face throws off her hood and shakes her hair and her age drops off of her like bandages. The man with a monk’s tonsure, muttering to himself, leaps onto a table and strikes music from the air. Out of the bowels of the kitchen the weary cooks, small brown people, cartwheel and break dance, spinning like upended beetles on the ground and their faces crack into glee and they are suddenly lovely to look at, and the dozen customers start up all at once into loud song, voices broken and beautiful. The song rises and infiltrates the city and wakes the inhabitants, 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: (203).