Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How Did the Book Club Go? Arcadia, by Lauren Groff.

This month's book's in-store lit group selection was Lauren Groff's Arcadia. This is her second published novel, following The Monsters of Templeton. It was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, probably due to the undying devotion of critic Ron Charles. He compares it favorably to T.C. Boyle's Drop City. That's the second book club book in a row to be compared to a Boyle novel. Has he really covered all the major plot lines in literature?

Arcadia follows a young boy, Bit, from his childhood to middle age. He is raised on a commune in upstate New York. While J. was grateful for once to have a single perspective chronological story, Groff does follow the incident/break model of storytelling, where a lot of the plot happens in the gap. It's not that unusual a device, but I think it's always fascinating for the reader to come upon it for the first time. I recall, in particular, a Canadian novel by Bonnie Burnard called A Good House that touched me with that structure. I see she has a more recent novel called Suddenly, but at least so far, it doesn't seem to have American publication.

The first section of the book is Bit's childhood (his given name is Ridley, by the way), a smart kid who does not talk, but is an astute observer of the ways of the commune. The land was from the family of Titus, but despite note having ownership, it somehow is deeded to Handy, a popular musician of the time, and that sort of leads to a power dynamic that determines the fate of the community. For one thing, the commune is meant to be self sustaining (and vegan!), but in the end, is dependent on new blood throwing in their savings.

By the time of Bit's adolescence, Arcadia is fraying. There's not enough room for the newcomers at the main house, so they are separated into camps and quonset huts, and the newcomers don't necessarily have the original ideals. Who's going to give up their savings for that? They are more interested in taking from the communal store, and having an idealist life filled with sex and drugs. But Bit, while taking this all in (and he also speaks now), is more concerned with his obsession with Helle, Handy's daughter.

I'm not going to talk about what happens in the next sections in terms of plot development, as part of the joy is in finding out what happens. But of course it's hard to talk about a novel in terms of book club discussion without giving away a little, so I'm hoping you are not surprised to hear that the utopian community fails and Bit is cast off into the wider world. It's probably best to stop reading here if you don't want any more plot points given away.

But whether or not you know what happens, the thing to note is that while the actual experience of Aracadia has some ups and many downs, for Bit, it is childhood, and has an idealized quality for the rest of his life, despite spending most of his adulthood in New York City. And while some of the other alumni spend the rest of their lives running from their childhood, he, with his family unit intact, pines for its disappearance, or at least that's what it seemed like to me.

Pretty much everyone wound up liking Arcadia; the rumor was that two of the attendees who did not show up were less interested. G. told us a story about her visit to an upstate New York commune in the 1970s that made wooden toys. She found that despite the ideals; the folks populating the place were just like everyone else--some were nice, and others were selfish and mean-spirited. At the workshop, she saw one person throw a truck at another.

Groff has mentioned in interviews that she read a lot about idealized communities and utopias before writing the book, but based the concept on two in particular. Arcadia the house was based on Mansion House in upstate New York, a commune  that advocated free love and no childbirth. It sort of turned cult that created a eugenics program so they would not go the way of the Shakers by allowing selected procreation. This, no surprise, led to elderly men breeding with teenage girls, and half the offspring was that of the leader.  The other group, The Farm, in Tennessee, had more of the dynamics of Arcadia, and was said to have survived into the 1980s.

I read an interview with the author in The Millions where Edan Lepucki compared the book to Emma Donoghue's Room, but was a bit surprised by a great leap into the future that reminded her move of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was also surprised that while we noted the connection to Egan, we hadn't caught the Donoghue, even though we read it in the group. One part of the novel that worked very well for us was Hannah's illness, which led Bit to return to his childhood home, and how her ALS (oops, sorry) created a very similar circumstance to her depression during Bit's childhood.

Something that was more controversial was the decision to create a dystopian vision that matched the utopian vision of the opening. It wasn't particularly science fictiony, but several folks found it jarring, and the story would have probably worked just as well with the visit back to Arcadia to care for his mom, without the quarantine. You can read this interview in The Millions for Groff's argument for why this route is important for the book.

Several folks commented about how they preferred the hardcover jacket of Arcadia. I reminded folks of the general trade, towards graphic type covers for hardcovers (and ebooks) that looked better when shrunk down to small size on a screen while trade paperbacks were seemingly trending towards more literal pictures that connected better with target customers of chain bookstores and mass merchants. Interestingly enough, our customers, and probably those of many indie bookstores, gravitate towards the typo. It's sort of the way our customers tend to disdain movie tie-in art for original jacket...even though they are reading the book because of the movie coming out!

One thing that several folks commented upon was how much we loved Bit. He's just amazing--a quiet child who has amazing perceptive abilities, mathematical skills, artistic genius. He's so sensitive with women, thoughtful, nonviolent. J. thought Groff did a better job as a woman writing about a man than say, Amor Towles, a man, did in Rules of Civility writing about a woman. I don't know if N. quite agreed--this was more of an idealized version of a man, say, what a woman would want a man to be.

One thing that I thought was interesting was that in categorizing this novel, I saw it fit into the canon of classic college novels. Though this is not literally the college story of The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding or The Collective, there is that same sort of disconnect between idealism and reality. The commune, in effect, is the college.

Interestingly enough, many of us noted that while there is some humor in the story, Arcadia is a pretty serious book. Suzanne happened to read The Monsters of Templeton, Groff's first novel, fairly recently, and noted that it had a lot more humor in it. 

Our next two books:
Monday, March 4, 7 pm: Leon and Louise, by Alex Capus.

Monday, April 1, 7 pm: A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer DuBois.

In an addendum, after this was posted, our HarperCollins rep Cathy noted that folks who liked Arcadia would be interested in Melissa Coleman's This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak, which came out in paperback last April. 

No comments: