Arcadia, by Lauren Groff, William Heinemann, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
Lauren Groff’s lyrical second novel, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut The Monsters of Templeton, traces the rise and fall of a hippie commune in the wilds of western New York State. Led by Handy, an enigmatic folk singer, the inhabitants of “Arcadia” live off the land and share everything, from food to books to sexual partners. They call each other names such as “Wolf” and “Rainbow”, and use words such as “ether” and “vibe” with no apparent irony.
All this seems completely normal to our young protagonist, Bit. Born in 1968, shortly before the foundation of Arcadia, he knows little of the outside world. He spends his days roaming the countryside, fascinated by snakes and frogs and the “goldfinches that dart like flying fish from the grass”. His experience of the environment is completely unmediated by technology, and he seems attuned to nature, to hear, as George Eliot put it, the squirrel’s heartbeat. But as he grows older, he begins to see that there are flaws in this pastoral paradise.
So what’s the problem with peace, love and understanding? Well, the squalor, for one thing. As the commune becomes ever more crowded with junkies and dropouts, supplies run low, and the mingled odours of “sweat, onion, jizz and cheap incense” become overwhelming.
Then there’s the matter of Handy’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Styling himself a “spiritual leader” – he comes across as a combination of Kris Kristofferson and Orwell’s Big Brother – he subjects miscreants to “creative critiques”, provoking factionalism and dissent.
The account of Arcadia’s eventual collapse is brilliantly done. With Reagan’s government threatening to raid the camp for fugitive criminals, the Arcadians throw a valedictory bacchanalia, and the Virgilian idyll descends into a drug-fuelled, Dantean hell. As the sun rises the following morning, Groff conjures the splendid postlapsarian image of a local Amish farmer quietly navigating his horse-drawn cart through the “bonfires, the wasted bodies, the chemicals”.
We follow Bit as he grows to adulthood, moves to New York, and begins to question the failed Arcadian project. Was it an attempt to recapture the vision of the earliest American settlers? A manifestation of Nixon-era discontent? These musings – which encourage the reader to reflect on the meaning of the commune – seem a little didactic, not to say redundant. The beauty of Groff’s creation lies in the fact that it is too richly particularised to function as allegory or synecdoche.
Finally, Bit resolves to no longer place his faith in utopian dreams and instead to find pleasure in the quotidian detail of everyday life: “a hot shower after a cold day”, or a “spritz of lemon in water”. If Groff begins by extolling the grand gesture, she ends – to borrow a phrase from John Updike, another great chronicler of Baby Boomer restlessness – by giving the mundane its beautiful due.