Arcadia a Trippy Novel of the 60s and Beyond

Arcadia (2012)
Lauren Groff
Voice 978-1401341909
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Few groups have been as maligned, romanticized, or misunderstood as 1960s-era hippies. Were they the embodiment of narcissistic individualism, a collective nightmare, or the nation’s last shot at redemption? Did their demise mark the dawning of sanity, or was it a society-wide surrender to the logic of self interest, greed, and dehumanization? Do we call a world without collective dreams “realistic,” or “tragic?” In her second novel, Lauren Groff grapples with such questions in before and after snapshots. The first part of the book is set in an undisclosed section of New York, where idealistic young people are determined to make the world anew in a commune known as Arcadia. (Internal clues suggest she’s located Arcadia someplace near Ithaca, which would make sense, as Groff grew up in Cooperstown and the Finger Lakes region was a hotbed for communalism.) We witness the life and death of a community as it emerges from a small band of rugged idealists living for years in buses, impromptu shelters, and sheds to a large community that restores and dwells in a rambling mansion, has become self sufficient, and stands as a beacon for other dreamers: in both good ways and bad.

Arcadia is, depending on one’s point of view, either a countercultural Woodstock-like utopia where drugs, music, casual sex, veganism, and personhood flourish, or a Brueghel-like hell of poverty, immorality, and foolishness. Among the many questions: Is it the sort of place where kids should grow up? The commune’s unofficial leader is Handy, a somewhat older gadabout, rock musician, poet, and homespun philosopher who may be a tribal elder, or might be a passive-aggressive egomaniac and charlatan that parasitically sucks sustenance and esteem from others. But the book really centers on “Bit,” the diminutive son of ponytailed carpenter Abe and his bourgeois-turned-earth mother partner Hannah. Bit—as in a “just a little bit of a hippie”—grows up wild and free on the commune. It’s the only life he knows, and things such as meat or encountering an old woman living in the woods throw him for a loop. As he begins to grow older, he’s really thrown for a loop by Helle, the daughter of Handy and one of his two wives, Astrid.  Like many things in the book, it’s not always clear if Bit is enjoying a golden childhood free of the hang-ups that damage a lot of kids, or is being set up for failure on a grand scale. And that’s really the question that looms over the entire commune.

Neil Young recently pondered whether 60s ideals were just “a dream/Only a dream/And it’s fading now/Fading away…Just a memory without anywhere to stay.” Groff begins her story sometime in the late 1960s and propels it forward to the year 2018. That’s plenty of time for utopian dreams to unfold, to sour, to morph, and for people to die or move on. It’s time for Bit to develop an independent self, go to college, have relationships, and build a life as a photographer and professor off the commune. And which self will be happier, the one traipsing through the trippy world of Arcadia, or the one bumped and bruised by life in the mainstream? What is this thing we call “reality,” and should we desire it? In essence, Arcadia asks the eternal question of whether we should live in the moment, wallow in regret for paths not taken, show disdain for the present, hope for the future, or seek a return to some sort of metaphorical womb.

There is great speculation as what Groff—who was born in 1978, long after the heyday of communal life--used as Arcadia’s role model. Several critics cite California’s Hog Farm (which remains extant), but to me Arcadia seems a mash between the daily survival struggles of Montague Farms in western Massachusetts and the agitprop politics of the Bread and Puppet community in Glover, Vermont. Another open question is whether Groff’s relative youth betrays her. Arcadia is an odd book stylistically.  She has clearly done some research on communes, but the sections on Arcadia occasionally sound mildly condescending—as if she was familiar with the ideals behind communes, but can’t quite grasp the fervor with which some believed in them. Give Groff credit, though, for vivid descriptions of the land, living conditions, daily routines, and the stark contrasts she draws between communing with nature and being collectively slapped by the same forces.

Still, the book’s tone changes dramatically during the post-commune years. Groff not only understands this period better, she writes about it with an elegance that is sometimes lacking in the first half of the book. This is unexpected, as one might expect the odors of home-baked bread to come off better on the page than descriptions of grab-and-go shopping for prepackaged goods at a convenience mart. Or maybe we should expect this. Neil Young also famously snapped back at a concert critic who complained that his music was redundant with the terse, “It’s all the same song.”  Maybe Groff’s point is that who we are is who we’ve been. Toward the end of the book Bit returns to what’s left of Arcadia and learns unanticipated lessons. Is it the dream finally finding someplace to stay? If you’re Lauren Groff, the smartest thing you can do is leave the question open-ended.—Rob Weir    

1 comment:

susanb said...

heard the author interviewed on Ithaca radio....i am immersed in this book!