Page by page through Lauren Groff’s story about a hippie commune in western New York, I kept worrying that it was too good to last. Not the commune — it’s a mess from the start — I’m talking about the novel, which unfolds one moment of mournful beauty after another. As she did in her inventive debut, “The Monsters of Templeton” (2008), Groff once again gives us a young person — in this case a boy — struggling to understand himself and his peculiar history. But this time, she’s moved beyond the legends of James Fenimore Cooper that infused “Monsters” and taken on the more universal myth of paradise lost.
Stories about utopian settlements usually suffer from our dyspeptic need to humble anyone suspected of radical idealism. Nathaniel Hawthorne set the national tone early by satirizing his comrades’ credulity in “The Blithedale Romance.” Nowadays, as we take our solitary way, disparaging the naivete of 1970s communes offers liberals and conservatives a rare “Kumbaya” moment. For anyone still naive enough to feel nostalgic about free-love merrymakers, T.C. Boyle’s “Drop City” was, like, a total buzz kill, man, and at first Groff, who has published stories in the New Yorker, the Atlantic and “The Best American Short Stories,” seems to be strumming the same lament. But “Arcadia” offers something surprising: if not a redemption of utopian ideals, then at least a complicated defense of the dream.
At 33, Groff can barely remember the Village People, let alone Woodstock, but in her second novel she’s constructed an entirely believable settlement of Free People dedicated to “Equality, Love, Work, Openness to the Needs of Everyone” — a veritable Republican nightmare. The story begins when Bit Stone is 5 years old, “a mote of a boy,” living in bliss with his parents and a few dozen fellow vegetarians on 600 acres of natural beauty — and pot. “We are a hive,” Bit thinks in amazement. Their leader is a rock star who’s already served time for possession and seems determined to keep the group from taking any practical steps toward sustainability or independence from his laid-back tyranny.
With Creative Critiques, Vision Quests and communal birthings in the nude, these beatniks make ripe targets for satire, although Groff rarely plays them for laughs. “Arcadia” is too melancholy for that. The herbal optimism of these young men and women arrives already cast in the shadow of failure. It’s the age-old problem of utopian designs: Who wants to clean the kitchen while everybody else is getting high with a little help from their friends? While they lazily try to grow vegetables in their own waste, starvation is a real possibility; malnutrition is a fact. The risks are even more harrowing for the children left untended by intoxicated parents: sex abuse, poison, fire. This is only paradise if you’re stoned.
Or a boy like Bit. While we sense “the layered tensions of Arcadia” playing out in the background, Groff keeps us focused on the visceral wonder this child feels. “The world contracts in a friendly way around him,” she writes. Small and quiet, he’s a woodland sprite, awed by his affable father and concerned for his depressed mother. His empathy is a raw ache that seems sometimes too intense for a little heart. Even “the teeth of the comb are so gentle on his scalp,” she writes, that “it feels like crying.” He knows instinctively “that people are good and want to be good, if only you give them a chance. This is the most magnificent thing about Arcadia.” If you’ve read Emma Donoghue’s “Room” — one of the most powerful novels of 2010 — you have some sense of the tender perspective that Groff cradles in these pages. “The world is sometimes too much for Bit, too full of terror and beauty. Every day he finds himself squeezed under a new astonishment. The universe pulses outward at impossible speeds.”
The whole novel is told in short scenes, usually just a few pages long, sometimes no more than a few sentences. It’s a form well suited to Bit’s intense sensitivity and Groff’s poetic style. I was constantly torn between wanting to gulp down this book or savor its lines. Even the most incidental details vibrate with life. A mouse “prays into its pink hands, watching Bit, it smoothes its fat haunches like a housewife in a new dress.” Walking after a rain shower, he sees “a low sweep of birch trees pale as girls in the dusk. There’s a feeling of captured movement, a slight tilting down the hill as if in a breath they will regain their human shapes and stumble back into a run.” We couldn’t possibly get any closer to experiencing a world as fertile as his.
Paradise is lost, of course — Groff is too steely for anything else — but “Arcadia” follows a complex, quietly hopeful trajectory through the valley of death. She has divided the story into four parts, each separated by several years, that go on to capture Bit as a lovelorn teen, then a young man and finally a gentle adult in a dystopic future that may await us all.
Even as the novel sinks into questions about social and bodily illness, it resists any easy cynicism in favor of a profound consideration of the American paradox. Like Fitzgerald at the end of “The Great Gatsby,” Groff ties Arcadia all the way back to those old Dutch sailors who looked upon this land as the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” After all, weird little groups with starry-eyed plans have scratched a long, mournful history on our shores. Bit isn’t naive enough to think his parents’ commune should have worked, but he suffers “grief as a low-grade fever.” He can’t shake the hopeful story that spawned him, that edenic sense of harmony. “We’re all looking for what we lost,” he says. “A tight, beautiful community, filled with people he loved like family, living closely and relying on one another, a world with music and stories and thought and joy, of earthy happiness.”
In practice, of course, that dream gets the psychedelic life kicked out of it. Groff’s miracle is to record the death of the fantasy but then show how the residue of affection can persist and, given the right soil, sprout again. “Arcadia” wends a harrowing path back to a fragile, lovely place you can believe in.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Lauren Groff
Voice. 291 pp. $25.99