Lauren Groff's enchanting new novel, Arcadia, takes its title from a setting that seems like a far-off (or far-out) myth, though it's only a few decades in the past: a 1970s live-off-the-land commune. • Depending on your point of view, that place and time might have been a golden age or a grotesque folly. In Groff's skillful hands, Arcadia is both, and much more. • Groff, who lives in Gainesville, married the mythical and the realistic to fine effect in her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and she does it even better in Arcadia.
From the very first — his miraculous premature birth during a snowy cross-country caravan — Bit Stone's life reads like a fairy tale. Arcadia begins with Bit's magical first memory (even though it's a scene he couldn't possibly remember), and the first of the book's four sections recounts his idyllic childhood in the upstate New York commune of the title. Bit is the farm's Adam, the first child born to its tribe of inhabitants, at age 5 still "tiny, a mote of a boy. He is often scooped up, carried. He doesn't mind. From against the comforting strength of adults, he is undetected. He can watch from there, he can listen."
Watch and listen he does, and through him Groff paints a vivid picture of Arcadia. The requisite charismatic figure at its head (the guy who is always insisting there's no hierarchy just before he hands down a decision) is Handy, a musician a little reminiscent of Jerry Garcia. His followers were originally a few dozen groupies and fans who dug his philosophical bent as well as his tunes.
Handy was shrewd enough to acquire Arcadia — several hundred acres of farmland and forest with a huge but tumbledown mansion — by sweet-talking one follower's father into signing it over to him. But as the book begins, the tribe is still living in what they call Ersatz Arcadia (tents, trucks, Quonset huts) three years later because they haven't gotten organized enough to refurbish the house, although it's big enough for all of them — by now 80 or so people — to live in.
When Handy departs on a concert tour, Bit's father, Abe, rallies the commune to get the daunting job done — and they do, in an astounding three months. Abe thinks Handy will be delighted, but it's not that simple.
Groff's rendering of Bit's childhood is often enthralling. He's not only the apple of his parents' eyes, he's surrounded by loving adults whom he fancifully categorizes as kings and princesses, ogres and witches. He and the rest of the commune's Kid Herd have a freedom and closeness to the natural world most contemporary children couldn't imagine, not to mention a stupendous work ethic — on a self-supporting farm, everyone pitches in.
But even as a child, Bit begins to see some of the downside, too. There's not always enough food or heat or clothing, and neither the group's Creative Critiques of errant members nor Bit's own attempts at magic can cure the long bout of depression his mother, Hannah, sinks into after a miscarriage.
The book's second section finds both Bit and Arcadia suffering growing pains. Almost 10 years later, the commune's population has doubled, then tripled; police helicopters buzz it looking for marijuana fields. One of Bit's parents is disabled, internal political tensions have intensified, and Bit himself is beginning to realize how cut off he is from the world. He has never been outside the commune's acres, never seen a city or an ocean, is flabbergasted the first time he tastes a potato chip.
And, at 14, he has also been shocked by sex. Handy's daughter Helle, formerly a "frog-faced" little girl Bit considered a pest, has been Outside, as he thinks of the world, and come back as an icy, troubled beauty. She will bewitch and betray him, over and over, for years. As Bit's friend Verda, an elderly recluse, tells him, "Careful. … Most powerful people in the world are young, beautiful girls."
Disaster shatters Arcadia, sending most of its residents, Bit and his family included, back to the world. The book's third section gives us Bit as an adult in his 30s, a father, briefly a husband, a professor of photography in a place very far from Arcadia: Manhattan. And the fourth section joins him even later, as he turns 50 and the world turns scary, his life still shaped in ways positive, negative and unknowable by the commune.
Filled with lush imagery and tender wisdom, Arcadia would be an engrossing and affecting novel if it never left the farm. But it gains much greater depth as Groff follows Bit into adulthood, exploring those resonances and their unexpected turns.
At one point, Bit has a gallery show of his photographs, portraits of his friends from Arcadia. He invites many of them to the opening, where they see "their own handsome adult Outside faces juxtaposed with their achingly tender and open Arcadia faces, shelled and unshelled. … What they found most moving, they told him later, were the blanks between the frames, the leaps that happened invisibly between the then and the now."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.