Lauren Groff And The Need For Artist As Story Teller

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Arcadia is a story about stories, about how the narratives we make, or are handed down, form a patchwork-bubble that hovers around us as we move through life, distorting our view of the world until, as we grow older, this semi-fluid shell —part projection, part protection— begins to thin, harden, and crack around us, each fissure becoming a wound that bleeds disillusionment.

Arcadia is also about those times sublime when we see our world—I mean, really see it… as an Artist might:  in a stillpoint moment, in a pocketful of time, with an artist’s eye and a concentration of mind.

I haven’t seen an adult novel done this well in ages.  The writing is poetic but not in a boastful or vain way.  The language flows smoothly, periodically eddying into deeper pools—but not for too long— before scampering forward again, moving with that combination of fluidity and jerkiness that is Time, itself, sweeping always past us in both warm, desultory breezes and sudden, frigid gales.

The novel covers more than half the life of the main character, Bit, the panorama remaining personal without becoming sickly or tediously introspective.  Bucking the creative writing program trend (a trend now as old, stale, and hollow as a week-old doughnut), Groff is no narcissist; she has fallen in love with neither her own eye for detail nor her own power to make ironic observations.  Unlike many “serious” works being churned out of writers’ workshops now-days, there is no self-indulgence here, and stuff actually HAPPENS.  I would not go so far as to say it is a “plot-driven” tale—it is still a “literary” work (if you know what I mean)—but amid all the introspective reflections and explorations of the complexities of everyday relationships, plenty of things—big things—are going on.

The story is told in the limited third-person voice, and our way into the world is always through Bit:  a small, sensitive, soft-hearted being whom we meet as a child.  As a boy, Bit is strangely silent, telling no one his own stories, for “no words could possibly contain all he has to say.”  He was the first baby born in a hippie commune called “Arcadia,” located in late 1960s America.  The idealistic hippies have dropped out of the human-oppressing and animal-exploiting world of men and retired to an idyllic retreat where the foundations of their consciously created community are:  “Equality. Love. Work. Openness to the Needs Of Everyone.”

To tell the truth, one reason I may have been so content to sit patiently with the book while it took its time unfolding was that I, myself, have been tangentially involved with hippy commune life in my day, and Groff actually pulls off a very realistic depiction of how life works—and doesn’t work– in such places.  Eventually, nearly all of the evils of the outside world the hippies tried to escape seep into their commune to spoil the shared dream– not all at once, which they could perhaps fight, but inch by inch.

The portrait of the commune is one of Groff’s grandest and most over-arching explorations of her theme:  the collision between the stories we inflate for ourselves and the needle of the real world.  In spite of all the community members’ wishful thinking and high ideals, they cannot escape human nature— the shirkings, the betrayals, the frictions and the frailties.

The first stories to form the prism through which Bit views the world, besides those of the commune’s characters and mythology, are from a book of fairy tales he finds.  In the beginning, he cannot read many of the words, and so the pictures dominate his conceptions.  As he begins to fit his world inside his worldview, as we all do, the people around him become witches and other characters from the stories he has read.  Later in life, Bit will maintain this disposition to communicate through pictures, falling in love with photography as a teen and becoming a skilled photographer as an adult.  This is how Bit serves as the connection between the two sharp edges of the double-edged blade of Arcadia:  he combines the artist’s eye with the human penchant for hanging our lives on a narrative framework, and so tells beautiful stories.

And is this not the most important mission for the Artist?  We need the Artist to illuminate some portion of the world for us that he can see with greater clarity than most of the rest of us, and we need him to tell us this story, the real story, using whatever medium necessary.  Without the Artist (and be aware, the Artist can take the form of a Prophet as well as a painter), we are cursed to stumble this earth through the brambles and pits of false and misleading stories.  Art reaches its most sublime when it leads us, through Beauty, to a deeper understanding of the Real, where “Truth is Beauty, and Beauty, Truth,” and where the fact that the communicated Beauty is Truth really is, in a sense, all we know and all we need to know.

At one point, Bit quotes George Eliot concerning the importance of truly seeing the world around us:  “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”  Bit the artist has this ability, and thus also has the pain that comes with such sensitivity.

Several times in the book, Groff has Bit spontaneously list the beautiful things in life that he sees with his artist’s eye;  at their best, these run like little poems, such as this gem:

“The feel of running on the last crust of snow when the others fall through, that softness at the end of a branch that is the whisper of a bud.  He adds to the list in his head:  raspberry jam on just-baked bread.  The smell of the pocket of Titus’s waxed coat, pipe tobacco and lint and cedar.  The four blond heads of Handy’s kids around a letter.”

When Bit has grown up and become a photography professor, he is convinced that the most important thing he can do “is to help his students see; to make them pay attention, slow down and appreciate.”  He berates himself later when, watching a sunrise, he realizes that as his illusions have blinded one eye, he has allowed the other eye to stop seeing, as well.  When had he stopped watching sunrises?, he wonders.  “When did he become a person who stopped noticing?”

Even Bit with his artist’s eye, is not immune from the temptation to construct a false narrative for himself, and the consequences for him of building his life on such rotten boards are later catastrophic for his inner self.  But in this, he is no more culpable than the rest of us.  We build our lives, not around facts, but around stories.  When these stories prove false, we crumble.  Or, at Bit comes to think, “when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.”

“They can wound, stories. They can blister,” thinks Bit when the story he has written in his head about himself and the love of his life unravels.  Now heartbroken, “time just stretches vast” and, harkening back to the fairy tales which form the deepest stories in the overall saga of himself, Bit “doesn’t know what magic words are necessary to get their story back.”  All he knows is that “longing for perfection is the hole in the dam that can let everything pour out.”

The love of Bit’s life, Helle, also seems to grasp the fact that a person’s Life is only the stories we tell ourselves.  When she is leaving Bit, she tells him not to forget her, for if she drops from his memories —which, after all, are merely the stories we keep on the bookshelves of our mind— then she fears “it’ll be like I’ve never existed at all.”

And because it is one of my favorite passages from the book, I want to include here Groff’s lovely description of Bit watching Helle pull away in the car that is taking her out of the bubble of his illusions.  Even as she pulls away, Bit’s fairy tale world clings to her til the very edge of the bubble in the form of an immense puppet controlled by one of Bit’s friends:

“Out of the darkness at the edge of the wood there steps a giant, which is caught now in the headlights and shines.  It is an old man, comically bug-eyed, fork-bearded, with bendy spaghetti arms.  It waves and bows in graceful, almost human movements.  When the car passes beyond and the darkness steals back out from where it had hidden at the edge of the woods, Bit sees Leif under the puppet, still dancing in the dark.”

It gives me chills, still, to see the beauty of this construction:  it is as if Helle is rising out from the pages of the book of fairy tales in which Bit is still living, a Peter-Pan-left-behind sadness pervading the scene.  And even in the fairy tale world, the monsters, if one looks too closely, advertise their non-reality.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say Bit will meet Helle again.  When they compare notes on their childhoods spent living in the hippy commune of Arcadia, they discover they have constructed completely different stories.  In Bit’s story, they came from “a tight, beautiful community, filled with people he loved like family, living closely and relying on one another, a world with music and stories and thought and joy, of earthly happiness”.

Helle’s story is far different:  “We were never warm.  We never had enough to eat.  We never had enough clothes.”  For her, it was an Alice In Wonderland adventure turned upside down, where they started in Wonderland.  Says Helle, “we were like guests at the Mad Hatter’s table, but didn’t even know the world was flipped around.”

Even while Bit is still a teenager, he already grasps the dangerous undertows of childhood illusions.  Bit fears that when an illusion is snapped in someone at a tender age, the dangling shreds of faith “could snag somewhere in the little ones, make a dull, small pain that will circle back again and again, and hurt them in small ways for the rest of their lives.”

Late in the book, Bit —grown up, alone, the faith in his own worldview in shreds– watches his daughter Grete’s trackmeet while melancholic thoughts drift through his mind (in some more beautiful prose from Groff):  “How would it feel, Bit thinks, to be young again, to lift through the air on a pole, to fly over the sand and land in a great explosion.  He loves the good sediment of time, wouldn’t trade anything to have to go through that adolescent pain all over again.  But, for a moment, he longs to be one of these runners, these leapers, these fliers; to be one of the lovers standing there, that boy holding the willowly girl, so easily able to forget the world because a pretty young person longs to press close to him.”

It is especially heart-rending to see Bit alone, for he is a man of great sympathies and possesses an immense capacity to love— to love truly: undemanding, uncensoring, and accepting.  In a restaurant, he looks at the people around him, all bowed by the real world, their better selves worn-out with work and barnacled over with care, and he ponders the world’s lack of jubilation:

“He imagines snapping his fingers, making all the people in the diner stand, at once, and become their better selves.  The woman with the cragged oak-bark face throws off her hood and shakes her hair and her age drops off of her like bandages.  The man with a monk’s tonsure , muttering to himself, leaps onto the table and strikes music from the air.  Out of the bowels of the kitchen the weary cooks, small brown people, cartwheel and break-dance, spinning like upended beetles on the ground and their faces crack into glee and they are suddenly lovely to look at, and the dozen customers start up all at once into loud song, voices broken and beautiful.  The song rises and infiltrates the city and wakes the inhabitants,  one by one, from their own dark dreams, and all across the island, people sit up in bed and listen to it lap around them, an ocean of kindness, filling them, making them forget all the evil leaching out of the world for a very long moment, making them forget everything but the song.”

Life is better as a song, a ballad, a tale told with rhythm and meaning, with shared emotions and resonating sympathies.

An adult Bit realizes that it is the stories we train behind us as memories that help us to survive:  “He thinks of the rotten parachute they played with as kids in Arcadia: they hurtle through life aging unimaginably fast, but each grasps a silken edge of memory that billows between them and softens the long fall.”

Bit’s mother, whom Bit has always deeply adored, arrives in old age jaded and raw, no illusions left to protect her from the stings and stabs of the hard truth.  She sees the world as it really is, but now wishes she didn’t:  “How disappointing,” she remarks, illusion-starved, “when people succumb to what is expected of them.”  This statement takes us full circle around the human condition—from the illusions of youth, to the breaking free of illusions as young adults, to the longing again for illusions at full maturity.  Old age is when the songs begin stopping, and we desperately need the songs.

I should throw in somewhere here that you may feel tortured, as I did, by the last section of the book.  Though it contains some of Groff’s most outstanding prose, I felt it stretched a little too long and Groff was not as successful at painting us the picture of the near-future as she was of the near past.  I think the drag in this portion of the book comes largely from the introduction of important new characters so late in the game.

There, that’s said; my only major qualm with the book.  Now, let us begin approaching the end this overlong post by reveling in a passage that could serve as the beating heart of the novel, tattooing out the message with which Groff, the artist as Prophet, is attempting to teach us:

Peace, he knows, can be shattered in a million variations:  great visions of the end, a rain of ash, a disease on the wind, a blast in the distance, the sun dying like a kerosene lamp clicked off.  And in smaller ways:  an overheard remark, his daughter’s sour mood, his own body faltering.  There’s no use in anticipating the mode.  He will wait for the hushed spaces in life, for Ellis’s snore in the dark, for Grete’s stealth kiss, for the warm light inside the gallery, his images on the wall broken beyond beauty into blisters and fragments, returning in the eye to beauty again.  The voices of women at night on the street, laughing; he has always loved the voices of women.  Pay attention, he thinks.  Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath.”

At the end of the Arcadia, Bit’s mother –in words that must cut Bit to the quick coming from the mother he loves so deeply—condemns the life Bit has led:  “All your life tried to make people whole.  What you could have done.  If you didn’t have to nurse everyone.  Helle, Grete, me.  Students. You could have been an artist.”

Bit responds, very quietly, with four words which sum up the great truth of his life, “I am an artist.”

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