"The women in the river, singing."
by Lauren Groff
Arcadia is the story of Bit Stone born and raised on a utopian commune started by a small group of free thinkers, his parents included, in the 1970's. They are all devoted to back-to-the-land ideals and to their leader Handy who has taken them all to the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House in upstate New York. There the "free people" try to create an a better way of living by raising all of their own food, doing all of their own labor, living without the laws of the world around them, dedicated themselves to finding a life that will bring no harm to any living creature.
The commune always struggles to survive, but it succeeds as well. So much so that more and more people come to join the "free people"-- so many that the commune collapses under the burden of supporting more members than it can. Afterwards, the novel follows Bit as he tries to make his way as an adult in the adult work of New York City where he is raising a daughter as a single father. While the novel is focused on Bit Stone, Ms. Groff follows the lives of the commune's core members through their time in Arcadia House and into the diaspora that follows its demise. All points of the novel are interesting. Learning how the commune works on a daily basis, comparing that reality to how the members want it to work, the story of the commune's fall, the lives of its former members all make for an enthralling read.
There's been so much utopian/dystopian fiction lately that we're all a bit jaded towards it, but Arcadia is different from the rest in that its utopia is not science fiction. Arcadia is, in part, a case study of what utopian societies were like in the real world. There have been many such attempts in the history of America which Ms. Groff refers to throughout her novel--Arcadia House was built by a 19th century utopian group; it's neighbors are mostly Amish farmers who are also utopians of a sort. That Arcadia House borders on a dystopia by the time it falls offers another commentary on utopianism as does the novel's final section which follows Bit into the future, 2018, where he faces a dystopian society similar to those we're used to finding in contemporary utiopian/dystopian science fiction.
Ms. Groff creates a sense of otherworldliness in Arcadia through the use of utopian themes and through the use of present tense. Typically I find the extended use of present tense annoying and cloy, but in Arcadia it not only worked for me it worked on me. The sense that everything was happening right now whether it be events in the past or events in the future gives the novel an immediacy that draws the reader into a story that is far outside our experience. It also forces the reader to read in a different way, to slow down. Ms. Groff is taking us to another world in Arcadia, but she is not doing all of the work. Readers can follow her, but we're going to have to do our own walking to get there. It's well worth it.
If I have any quibbles with Arcadia at all, there are with the novel's final section. Ms. Groff goes a bit into the future, just like Jennifer Egan did in her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. While I enjoyed this in Ms. Egan's novel I found it problematic in Ms. Groff's. Ms. Egan places a few events in the the future, but she offers up very little specific detail about the future. Because the details of her future are about her character's lives, it's unlikely that A Visit from the Goon Squad will feel dated once Ms. Egan's future has been reached. In Arcadia, on the other hand, Ms. Groff is very specific about future world events that are only six years away. Come 2018, Arcadia will be dated. It's bothers me that Ms. Groff gave her book such a short shelf-life. I can see how doing so plays with the utopian/dystopian themes she is working with, but the deeper message of Arcadia didn't need to go there to be made.
The ultimate message of Arcadia is both profound and as common as dust. It's the same message found in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. On the final page of the novel, late in his own life, Bit Stone sits alone at home and hears people outside his window:
The voices of women at night on the street, laughing; he has always loved the voices of women. Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath. (289)
Think of Our Town's Emily Webb who died in childbirth. In the play's final act her spirit returns from the town's graveyard to observe an ordinary day in her own life. She finds the simplest things full of wonder: wonder that she completely failed to notice when she was living. Mr. Wilder gives her a moving speech about this that leaves many people in the audience reaching for an handkerchief if the play has been performed well. Ms. Groff sums it up a single line, "Pay attention not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath." I was alone in the room when I read that line, but there was not a dry eye in the house.
I like for my reviews to end by going back to the beginning, giving them a sense of unity and a sense of closure. This review has failed to be coherent enough to do this effectively. Although I managed to leave a few things out, I still had too much to say about Arcadia.