I Evacuated Lauren Goff's Florida

Florida (2018)
By Lauren Groff
Penguin/Riverhead Books, 275 pages.

There is something irresistible about well-written great stories. There is something very resistible about well-written books with mediocre stories, which is why I bailed on Lauren Groff's Florida 200 pages in.

This collection of tales has been much praised by critics, but one gets the sense that Groff is writing to impress them, not engage readers. I concede that Groff knows how to write. Many of the passages in Florida are as finely crafted as poetry. In "The Midnight Zone," a woman concusses herself trying to change a light bulb and lies on the floor as a storm gathers. Groff writes, "The wind rose again and it had personality; it was in a sharpish, meanish mood. It rubbed itself against the cabin and played at the corners and broke sticks off the trees and tossed them at the roof so they jigged down like creatures with strange and scrabbling claws. The wind rustled its endless body against the door." That's fine writing, but it's not in the service of much. Great writing only takes you so far if you don't have a compelling narrative upon which to hang it. That lack is, for instance, what makes James Joyce's Ulysses one of the most impressive unreadable books of all time. To return to Florida, Groff's weakly scaffolded stories reminded me that if I want stylish language alone, I've got a lot of superb poetry residing in my bookcases.

One critic has called Florida a psychogeography, an apt term. But I found that I just didn't care all that much about the Sunshine State if depleted of characters with enough depth to make me care about them. Moreover, there are so many repeated tropes that the tales seemed more like almanac readings than fiction. Most stories feature a character or two—usually a woman and/or children—in danger. That danger is often expressed as weather (blinding rain, oppressive heat, hurricanes, floods), external threats (snakes, gators, panthers), or personal demons (ex-spouses, ominous strangers, booze). Terror comes in three flavors, real, invisible, and imagined. When children appear, one is usually airy, lovable, and bright, the other its evil twin. And children are often in peril. In "Dogs Go Wolf," for example, two children are simply abandoned and might actually starve to death. A chapter titled "Snake Stories" is still another example of why we need more than just burnished prose. It is just nine pages long, but there are thirteen meditations within it. Some are about actual reptiles, but others veer into musings on original sin, women, flora, an injured child, and divorce. Snakes, it seems, are both animals and metaphors. "All the Earth's Corners" literally fills a house with snakes, but they set the stage for a mother who ultimately walks away from her son and ex-husband. Is she meant to be Eve, or an archetypal Bad Mother? I probably wouldn't even ask that question if the characters were better developed.

Physical, psychological, and metaphorical isolation is another Groff subtheme. This suggests that perhaps she underwrote characters to accentuate remoteness. I did not find this to be clever. In my estimation overwriting is no substitution for underdevelopment. By the time page 200 rolled around, I did something I seldom do: put down the book without finishing. My personal rule is to give up on an uninteresting book around the 1/3 mark; if I've invested the effort to slog through 70% of a book, it seems wasteful not to complete the last third. But it became clear to me that Florida was not going to become H. P. Lovecraft goes to the bayou.

I liked earlier Groff works such as Delicate Edible Birds and adored Arcadia, a book that testifies that Groff does know how to tell a story. Beginning with Fates and Furies, though, Groff appears to be working harder at being thought of as literary than of being engaging. That novel was, like Florida, well written and the characters were (just) memorable enough for me to plow through to the end. Not this time. Groff might do well to realize that the bulk of her readers are decades removed from college. I'd prefer that a novel be both literary and entertaining. If you make me choose between those two qualities, though, the song I dial up is "Let Me Entertain You." Florida was a swamp I didn't wish to traverse.

Rob Weir 

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