Arcadia

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Arcadia
Lauren Groff
Hyperion Voice, March 2012
304 pages
$25.99

The further we proceed into this new millennium, the greater our nostalgia for the 20th century past. Each decade has its myths and tropes, cultivated in the space between what we imagine and what we desire: the swinging 60s, the psychedelic 70s…even the Just Say No 80s.  In Lauren Groff’s new novel, Arcadia, she takes us on a nostalgic journey through them all.

Groff starts with a loving, detailed portrait of the people and workings of Arcadia, a 70s commune in upstate New York. Her protagonist, Bit, was the first to be born in the commune, while it was still only a wandering caravan. He is quite the starchild, and a perfect symbol for Arcadia’s aspirations: he thinks in emotive vignettes, and spends most of his time completely overwhelmed by everything that happens around him, from his mother’s depression to the sun shining on the frozen pond.

We skip ahead to the 80s; drugs, poverty, and narcissism reign. They’ve always been there, of course—Groff makes sure that we can see Arcadia’s flaws, even through Bit’s rose-colored glasses—except now these failings have metastasized. Arcadia has ballooned to several hundred: the “old Arcadians” in the manse, and the trippies, preggos, runaways, and itinerant freeloaders camping in the valley below. It’s only a matter of time before the whole endeavor implodes.

Still, Bit is too distracted by thoughts of Helle (the dark and brooding wildchild daughter of the commune’s spiritual leader) to see what is going on. “You’re not remembering right,” Helle says to him much later, “You’re memory’s doing some kind of crazy gymnastic routine to get happy out of our childhood.”

Last, we enter a lightly dystopian near-future, when most of the original Arcadians have fled to The City. If the third section seems like a drab and depressing shadow of the first two, then that only fits Bit’s existence in this melancholy modern jungle. Arcadia is a dream long past, existing only as a mural on the wall of his daughter’s room. Helle too is gone, and his parents Abe and Hannah will be soon enough.

Groff writes such a stark, conventional present that it makes us stop to wonder: Is this the character of the millennium? Will these years be remembered as a quiet, crushing despair in the face of overwhelming forces both real and imagined? Between Foer, Franzen, and now Groff and many others, it certainly seems that way. We’ve seen it time and time again: a man and a woman, alienated from each other and the city around them. Relationships failing, private desperation.

Are we doomed to service this archetype in our literature for decades to come? I’d hate to think so. But if alienation lit has survived this long—ever since Richard Yates and John Cheever—it must be filling an unspoken need. Perhaps not unlike nostalgia.