Lauren Groff’s engrossing second novel, Arcadia, centers on the first child born in an upstate New York commune where utopian ideals inevitably clash with the darker side of human nature. The boy’s name is Bit, whom we come to know intimately over the course of the narrative’s move from the late 1960s through 2018 — an arc that parallels America’s own complicated trajectory over that same period of time.
Marked by Groff’s lyrical prose, a refreshingly even-handed take on subject matter that is often satirized and an uncommonly evocative re-creation of a specific time and place, it’s no surprise Arcadia has garnered a smorgasbord of praise from across the literary landscape.
CityBeat recently touched base with Groff to discuss her ambitious novel that’s often as funny as it is incisive.
CityBeat: Why were you interested in writing about a utopian society?
Lauren Groff: I wanted to live, for a little while, in a world that I created that was perfect. I was about to have my first child, and the universe felt so fraught with terror and anxiety and horror — I needed to control something and teach myself how to live. But, like all things utopian, even my imaginary perfect world fell apart, and I had to struggle with being all right with the prospect of creating something that will ultimately fail. Life itself, our children, the human experiment: all of these things will fail, and I had to learn how to handle that existential question.
CB: You largely resist conveying any sort of overt commentary on the commune and its impact on those who lived within it.
Is that intentional?
LG: If there’s commentary about the commune and its impact, it’s one mostly based in admiration and love for the nobility of their doomed experiment. It takes so much courage to begin something new, knowing that the likely outcome is failure. I suppose I empathized deeply with them, because writing a novel is utopian, also, and the finished book never resembles the beautiful book in your head. I also wanted to be fair to my characters and the people on whom my characters are based, and I find the ridicule that hippies are exposed to is utterly unfair. I don’t believe idealism is something that should be punctured. I think it should be celebrated. At the same time, my community’s failure was based in flaws in human nature, and I had to faithfully represent all that, also.
CB: Why did you want to present Bit at different stages in his life? Did you map out the narrative beforehand, or did it come to you in a more organic way?
LG: I always imagined the story as Paradise Lost, then mostly regained, and I wanted to address a lot of the global issues that seem so pressing to us right now. History is about flux, and I had to begin at a time of intense idealism, so the late ’60s and early ’70s were the right place to start my story. Bit had to push through an age of cynicism to get to a better place.
CB: Arcadia is rendered in a very visceral way; the descriptions of the commune often mention how things smell and the sensation of being there. How did you go about constructing that aspect of the narrative and making it seem authentic?
LG: Thanks. A lot of that was research-based, talking to a ton of people who lived in intentional communities, but also reading books and visiting places. I needed to get it right from a child’s perspective, as well, which is harder than it seems.
CB: Grimm’s fairy tales have an impact on Bit’s childhood and his ability to create imaginary worlds. Were there books that had a similar impact on your childhood?
LG: Grimm’s fairy tales haunted, informed and provided a very necessary storytelling framework for my childhood. I was, at heart, resoundingly shy and anxious as a child. A story, particularly a fairy tale, is a miracle, where terrible things happen but in a controlled way, which also happens to be a way that I could explore at will without having to talk to any other people. I’ve gotten over a lot of the shyness, but stories and storytelling are still beautiful balms for anxiety. I also loved Madeline L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, Tolkien and practically every other book I laid my grubby paws on — my parents let us run wild as children, and most of my early childhood was spent in a tree by the lake, reading all day. It was pretty perfect.
LAUREN GROFF speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday at UC’s Elliston Poetry Room in the Langsam Library.