In a world full of inescapable responsibility, Lauren Groff’s novel “Arcadia” asks us to consider a search for simplicity. Like Groff’s short story collection, “Delicate Edible Birds,” “Arcadia” invokes the magic inherent in fairy tales. Combine these fantastic elements with the reality of the 1960s and ’70s, an era of great social change, and you have a sense of both the commune Arcadia and arcadia — a pastoral place of peace where the outside world seems strange and dangerous.
Arcadia weaves a story of a man’s search for divine happiness and his longing for the seemingly carefree life of his childhood on a commune in the 1960s and ’70s.
Though this novel grapples with these deep issues, readers are invited to explore this novel with all of their senses. Bright color follows readers through the Arcadians’ giant puppets, the smell of seldom-washed bodies permeates the commune, we taste the too-sweet sugar that is forbidden in Arcadia and we are invited to hear and feel the natural world all around. The Kidlets of Arcadia hug trees and we believe in their innocence and connection to the Earth. The adults spread their love freely.
Arcadia follows the life of a man named Ridley, though readers know him mainly as Bit, which is short for “Little Bit of Hippie” because of his premature birth and small stature. Bit was the first natural born citizen of the commune of Arcadia in the mid-’60s and thus became part of the legend of Arcadia.
To cope with his parents’ confusing relationship, Bit becomes absorbed in the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As Bit learns to read the collection, he spends “hours in his new book happily, piecing together the terrible, sharp stories until the world is stuffed full of them and nothing else can get in.”
For a time, Bit is silent like the child in the story of the six brothers turned into swans, he sees what he thinks is a witch in the forest, and everyone in the commune is somehow a character from fable. His own mother is likened to a sleeping princess, someday to awake from a spell she is under.
Groff creates images so vivid that the reader is transported to each distinct time and space of the novel. And because Arcadia spans from 1965 to 2018, readers at all stages in their lives can relate in some way, from growing up and learning how to navigate adulthood to the anxiety of watching one’s parents age. Bit’s view of the past is so vibrant that we can almost believe Groff has opened up a time capsule.
Outside of the commune, Bit longs even more for the simplicity of his childhood and the true happiness that he believes he had in Arcadia.
This remains true even as he ages and equates old age to the tale of a woman, still alive, who is bricked into a wall.
As Arcadia progresses past 2012 and into the future, the outlook is bleak for the human race. Even though the last portion of the novel pulls from much-used themes of science fiction today, Groff’s prose remains poignant and raw.