Arcadia is a place somewhere up in the northern woods. Perhaps it's around Chautauqua, where 19th-century communards read each other poetry while fussing and feuding. Or maybe it neighbors the vales of the Burnt-Over District, where a dozen dissenting American religions sprang up. No matter the specifics, Arcadia is a place where you can feel the wind blowing from a distant Great Lake, a place where you can feel every barometric shift in the air of personal relations. It’s paradise, and it’s sometimes scary and weird—ripe ground, that is to say, for a skilled storyteller such as Lauren Groff, whose latest novel, Arcadia, like its predecessor The Monsters of Templeton, looks behind the idyllic curtain to find moments that are sometimes not so pretty, but always real.
Kirkus caught up with the author to talk about her book, one of our favorite novels of 2012.
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Utopias become dystopias figure in a rich literature, from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance to PD James’s Children of Men. Did you have any literary forebears in mind as you set to work on Arcadia?
Oh, yes, and thank you so much for this question. I had in mind both books you mentioned, but also many others, utopian and dystopian, and some mix of the two. Some of the more foundational ones (and I will kick myself for not remembering more in about an hour) were Utopia by Sir Thomas More, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, The News From Nowhere by William Morris, The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella, Plato’s Republic, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and of course, Middlemarch by George Eliot, which is far more subtle than all of the others above, and you’d have to stretch a bit to call it a “utopia become dystopia,” but I’d argue it is.
Sex, drugs, Victorian literature, melting polar ice caps—your book offers a taste of just about everything, taking us through many moods, decades and lives. Is there any moment in the book that stands out as a favorite—that brought you particular pleasure, perhaps, or some epiphany as you wrote it?
I knew I was going to be able to finish this book when I wrote the scene where my main character, Bit Stone, and his family finally leave Arcadia, and we see the world beyond the few hundred acres where he’d lived for almost all his life. His knowledge of the world beyond existed almost entirely in stories—told by people who had come to Arcadia to live and told in the books he’d read. Seeing the lives of real people outside of his little fishbowl showed him at last how vast the world is and how viscerally real it is, as well. I don’t think it ever really struck him before, though he knew the world outside was real intellectually. That moment was the subdued earthquake—all else that came later was aftershock. I knew better how the book ended after I wrote that.
Our reviewer pointed out that Arcadia presents something of a “structural conundrum,” coming full circle while ending at a very different place from the beginning. Had you thought this ambitious structure out in advance, or did it evolve as the story did?
I knew the very general arc of the story, which is unusual for me. I generally begin with a character and hang on desperately as they begin to gallop along and only find out much later where it is we’re going. But from the beginning, I was most drawn to the idea of how a person who is raised in such a tight community, in such idealism, would handle the world beyond as an adult, and I knew Bit had to lose Arcadia and live outside in the world. Now that I look at the book—years after I finished it, and so from what feels like a vast distance—I see it almost as a figure eight or infinity sign in structure, which makes lovely metaphorical sense but was done more out of intuition than intention.
Et in Arcadia ego, runs the old Latin tag: 'Even in Arcadia you’ll find me'—“me” being Death. There are plenty of somber moments in your book but also some resoundingly cheerful turns. Does the world hold good things in store for Bit Stone? The last words of the book, hopeful and lovely, suggest so. Still, you leave the possibility of a Duane’s Depressed–like sequel…
Duane’s Depressed—ha! I love Bit Stone. I love him like a son, and I mourn the fact that I can’t spend my days with him anymore. I miss him. I will never write a book with him in it again. But, like every parent of any child ever born, I know that he has to live his own life beyond me, and that the life he will live will include moments of tremendous beauty as well as moments of terrible heartbreak. Bit is sensitive and deeply empathetic. Being empathetic means that you suffer for other people’s pain, as well as your own. So, yes, the world holds more good things than Bit can ever imagine. And it holds more sorrow, too. That’s life.
You seem to have a particular fondness for the countryside, or at least the less hectic corners of the world—the glassy lakes around Cooperstown, the thick green forest of Arcadia. Is it safe to guess that your next book will be set in some such idyllic place, or are you looking at grimmer pastures?
Well, I don’t know if Florida counts as grimmer pastures, although on some days, when it’s 110 degrees and the air conditioning can’t keep up and the lizards sizzle to little crisps on their skitters across the hot bricks of the patio, I feel that it’s close to apocalyptic. That said, I have no idea if I’m going to keep whatever this mess is I’m working on in Florida, either. Or keep the mess at all. But I like the challenge of working in a sun-shot, hot, sandy place, as opposed to a rich, cool, green one. I’m starting to respond to Florida in a mysterious way, which is unexpected and wonderful to me.