Arcadia, Lauren Groff’s second novel, is a bit like the hippie commune at its centre: sprawling, chaotic, wildly optimistic in its scope, seemingly headed for sentimental failure, until – unexpectedly – it works.
The hippies who start the commune call themselves The Free People, and in 1971 they travel to upstate New York, where the principles of “Equality, Love, Work, and Openness to the Needs of Others” will shape their new community. One of The Free People has inherited a huge farm and sold the property for a dollar to their guru, Handy, whose charismatic personality is the only glue that holds the group together.
When Handy sees “In Arcadia Ego” carved over the front door of the vast crumbling mansion on the property, he decides Arcadia should be the name of their new society. He ignores his wife Astrid’s explanation, that the phrase comes from Virgil and means that death is present even in utopia. Instead Handy proclaims that there are “no egos in this Arcadia!” and his followers applaud. In this moment, we can already see the seeds of disaster: Handy preaches equality but his ego brooks no dissent; the group’s optimistic idealism cannot encompass the possibility of loss; women speak the truth but their voices are not always heard. The Free People may have arrived in Arcadia, but they cannot live in the mansion, which is actually an old orphanage, because it is so dilapidated as to be uninhabitable. Instead, the group creates what they call Ersatz Arcadia, a loose conglomeration of repurposed school buses, VW vans, and Quonset huts: Arcadia found ... Arcadia deferred. The novel’s title evokes the search for Utopia, but in fact the novel is about disappointment and loss – and how, or if, we can navigate through our losses and continue.
The novel’s hero, Ridley Stone (called Bit because he was so tiny at birth), is born in the back of a VW bus a few weeks before The Free People arrive in Arcadia. His birth story becomes Free People legend: he is the firstborn of their New World.
Bit’s childhood in Arcadia governs the first two sections of the novel, which detail the community’s complete unpreparedness for the hard work of forging a new world. If their Amish neighbours hadn’t taught them to farm, the Arcadians would not have survived their first year. “You were like babies,” an Amish neighbour explains to Bit, many decades later. “You could do nothing.” If there are problems, people are assigned hug therapy, or a “work yoga”, or subjected to a Community Critique, in which the entire group scolds an errant member for things like “bringing down all our energy ... you dig?”
Because Bit is a child in these early sections, he does not always see the full picture. He sees a fire that kills a child but not the smouldering cigarette in the sheets that started the flames; he feels his mother’s unhappiness but doesn’t know she’s suffered a late-term miscarriage. By the time he is a teenager, Arcadia has become dangerously overpopulated because Handy won’t turn anyone away. Handy wants to be “guru ... Teacher, but not … Leader”; he wants the power of being a leader and none of the responsibility. Eventually, Handy’s inability to govern leads to Arcadia’s spectacular and deadly collapse, and to the dispersal of most of The Free People. Bit and his family flee,
and find unlikely refuge in a sixth-floor walkup in New York City.
In the aftermath of Arcadia’s collapse, the novel rather jarringly jumps forward almost 20 years, and the second half of the novel focuses on Bit as an adult. “Suddenly,” we are told, “Bit was 35.” He has tired of poverty, picked up some qualifications and a job teaching photography at university and shows his photographs in galleries around Manhattan. We get brief flashbacks that fill in the family’s early miserable years in New York: his parents get divorced and Bit gets so depressed he is hospitalised. His depression is one of the many scars he bears from being part of the “Kid Herd”, as children were called in Arcadia.
The other members of The Herd react in different ways to the legacy of Arcadia: Handy’s oldest daughter Helle becomes a drug addict, one friend becomes a conservative talk-show host, another a suburban housewife, and yet another – Handy’s son Leif – becomes the CEO of Erewhon Illuminations, a computer animation business. He has “gutted, sleeked, chromed and glassed” the ancient mansion on Arcadia’s grounds and uses it as his corporate headquarters.
Bit must re-examine his memories of Arcadia and The Herd when he reconnects with Helle, whom he has loved wildly and silently since childhood. He hopes that, in true fairy-tale fashion, he can rescue her from the addictions that have tormented her since she left Arcadia. But Helle does not believe in the possibility of happy endings. She rejects Bit’s memories of Arcadia as “music and stories and thought and joy”. Her memories are of cold, hunger and neglect; of being allowed to drink apple juice spiked with hallucinogens when she was just five years old. Despite Helle’s bitterness, Bit believes that marrying her will allow his fairy tale to triumph, but then one day Helle simply vanishes. He is left with Grete, their baby girl, and a heart he thinks will never heal.
After Helle’s disappearance, the plot wobbles, as if Groff isn’t entirely sure which direction she should take. A student of Bit’s suddenly attempts (and fails) to seduce him, then disappears completely from the novel; with equal abruptness, Bit meets Helle’s ex-husband only to be told that Ilya is moving back to Russia to die and he wants Bit to have his Philadelphia town house, for Bit to use or to sell as he sees fit. The deus ex machina nature of Ilya’s gesture (Bit desperately needs the money) strikes a false note in a novel where, for the most part, events unfold as a natural result of individual actions.
After these minor wobbles, the novel subtly shifts gears. We realise, slowly, that Bit’s world, while almost exactly our own, is in fact a dystopian exaggeration: A citrus blight has killed all the oranges; the bees are dead; the bullfrogs and bald eagles are gone; and the world faces a Sars-like virus that has nations in full quarantine, airports in lockdown, and the dead “stacked in warehouses”.
As the epidemic spreads, Bit confronts a death closer to home: that of his mother, Hannah. She has returned to Arcadia to die in the house Bit’s father built for them. Bit, Grete and their friends join Hannah in the house that, with its “well and garden and basement full of food”, becomes an “island” where they are safe from the disease ravaging the rest of the country. Like Boccacio’s storytellers in the Decameron, Bit’s friends and family wait for the epidemic to run its course; they spend their time saying goodbye to Hannah by sharing stories and memories.
In the novel’s final pages, after Hannah dies and the epidemic scare is over, Bit and his daughter ready themselves to move back to Brooklyn, so that Grete can resume her urban life. Although he wants to stay in Arcadia, Bit will not hold his daughter hostage to his memories. The hippies who established Arcadia ignored the inevitability of loss; Bit returns to Arcadia thinking that loss is the only certainty but he finds, to his surprise, peace. He realises that Arcadia needn’t be “the grand gesture” but can be as small as paying attention to the “moment that blooms and fades”. In his own quiet way, Bit has moved through loss to find his own version of Arcadia, which he will carry within himself. And in this mostly satisfying novel, we see in Bit’s story traces of our own.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.