This week: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia takes utopia seriously, Tom McCarthy decodes the plot of life, Peter Behrens delivers a rich saga, and Adam Levin hails the stories of Saunders and Millhauser.
I discovered Lauren Groff while I was on the elliptical machine at my gym. It was early in the morning, but I was already running late; the out-of-date magazine in front of me was one of many that had piled up in my apartment, kept in futile hopes of staying on top of material that is pertinent to my job as a magazine editor. Groff had published a story—“Above and Below”—in The New Yorker that told of an early-career academic who abandons her studies and her students, drives her car to the beach with a copy of Middlemarch but no plan, and strays progressively farther off the grid. When a policeman peers into her car to ask her what she’s doing, she answers, “I guess I’m on a vacation from my life.” A vacation from life, I thought, pedaling in place in a row of whirring machines, how nice.
Groff’s newest book, Arcadia, also indulges in the fantasy of escape. It tells the story of an idealistic band of late-’60s hippies who retreat to the wilderness of New York state to set up a commune called Arcadia. Led by a charismatic musician—Handy—they farm, harvest, and, when they’re not scavenging materials for survival, restore an ancient, abandoned mansion where they plan to realize their vision: “Live with the land, not on it. Live outside the evil of commerce and make our own lives from scratch. Let our love be a beacon to light up the world.” Slap Apple (the Arcadians’ home-brewed liquor) flows freely, sometimes laced with LSD; clouds of marijuana perfume the air. Endless varieties of whole grains and soy products are served: fresh tofu yellowed with nutritional yeast, grilled soy-cheese sandwiches, oat groats with soy sauce. Naked women assist in natural childbirth. The matriarch’s face is described as “kind as a field of dandelions.”
Despite the familiar feel of this flower-child fantasy, Groff’s writing is fresh and the narrative compelling. This is in large part due to her protagonist, Bit, the first child born in the commune, who possesses a preternaturally perspicacity. His world is a sensual swirl—the cold, shady woods and sun-warmed meadows, the sweaty bakery and sawdust-filled house. He’s attuned to “the feel of running on the last crust of snow,” “that softness at the end of a branch that is the whisper of a bud,” the smell of an old man’s pocket: “pipe tobacco and lint and cedar.” Come away with me, Groff whispers in Bit’s seductive voice, and I did. It’s lovely to drift into her story. I did not take this novel to the gym. I read it sitting on my glassed-in porch, in a rocking chair, looking up every now and then at snowflakes falling against a darkening sky.
But if this book is filled with transcendent moments, it is, ultimately, about the impossibility of sustained earthly paradise. Rifts are present from the start. “This isn’t what I signed up for,” Bit hears his mother complain. “This isn’t a better life, this isn’t anything but poverty and hard work and not enough money to buy the kids winter boots.” (As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once observed, Thomas More, 16th-century author of Utopia, invented the idea of the forced-labor camp.) When the Arcadians first move into the refurbished house, they find In Arcadia Ego scrawled on the walls, an allusion (one of many that the book leans on) to the Poussin painting of the same name, translated as “Even in Arcadia I am”—the “I” refers to death. And as the book progresses, the futility of this experiment in communal living becomes increasingly obvious. Each of the book’s four sections advances the narrative a decade or two, and Arcadia does not age well. By the second section of the book, the population of the commune has swollen to thousands. The scents of “onion, jizz, cheap incense” have overtaken the fragrances of rosehip tea and baking bread. Handy is high or sleeping with teenagers most of the time. Someone dies at the end of a bacchanalian party. By the start of the third section, Bit and his parents have left Arcadia.
To see this book as only a meditation on inevitable sin, however, misses the point. Paradise may be unattainable, but Arcadia posits that sympathetic company is necessary to a meaningful life. The novel, in its second half, becomes about the quest to find a semblance of that community when defined parameters—a commune, a band, a family—dissolve. “This, here, now, is more utopia than utopia,” a grown Bit tells his parents when they visit him in New York City. “[A]lmost all of the kids from Arcadia are here in the city. We’ve gone urban because we’re all looking for what we lost. This is the only place that approximates it. The closeness. The connection.” But urban proximity does not necessarily lead to like-mindedness. “I read Atlas Shrugged in college and thought, Oh, my God, everything’s coming into focus,” Bit’s friendly and attractive neighbor tells him over a bottle of wine. Bit tries to steer the conversation toward George Eliot, but his neighbor has never heard of her. He feeds a homeless family living on his stoop, but does not speak to them.
In the final section of the book, the sense of dystopia becomes more pronounced and the search for refuge more desperate. Set in the near future, the pathologies of the present are amplified and exaggerated. Kids are never without their e-readers; entire islands have been swallowed up by rising seas (“lost Atlantises,” Bit pines). A pandemic is knocking people dead by the thousands. These evolutions are not surprising (in fact, they feel somewhat stale, having been recently hashed out in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad), and their persistent iteration makes Groff’s future feel somewhat forced. The love story between Bit and Handy’s daughter, Helle, which peaks in the middle sections, drags in the last. (This affair actually propels much of the plot of Arcadia; it’s a testament to the richness of Groff’s novel that I’ve not yet mentioned it.)
But when Groff returns to the core contemplation of the novel, her writing recaptures its understated but precise insight and its magical lyricism. Paradise on earth is elusive; there is a reason that the Latin word “utopia” translates as “no place.” But that does not diminish the significance of the search or the reward of unexpected brushes with happiness. “Thoreau saw the moon looming over fresh-plowed fields,” writes Groff “and knew the earth was worthy to inhabit.” Handy ends up in an “old-people garage,” as his wife calls his nursing home. “But there is a pool, gourmet buffet spreads; it is its own perfect place, in a way.” Groff’s novel is an elegant and compelling escape—if not entirely a perfect place, a place much, much better than my crowded gym.
Symbolism can be a cheap device when lazily executed. Like cynical moviegoers, exhausted by a hundred rote plot devices, readers know when they are being pandered to, when a dark forest is meant to imply menace or a cigar is obviously not just a cigar. In the work of the British writer Tom McCarthy, symbolism is never done half-heartedly. Instead, it is a grand, even symphonic performance. His novels redeem symbolism as something richly layered, capable of offering insight and mystery in equal measure. Glazing his philosophical explorations with a shimmering, resonant gloss, McCarthy’s symbols and motifs—radio waves, forgeries, echoes—breathe life into his novels.
Men in Space is McCarthy’s third published novel (he also published a nonfiction book about Tintin and the Secret of Literature), but it was the first he wrote. Blame the hidebound publishing industry for not knowing what to do with a writer of genuine originality, for American readers are only now being treated to Men in Space, several years after the successes of McCarthy’s Remainder and C. Men in Space may have some marks of a writer’s early efforts—it’s not quite as conceptually daring or, despite its multiple viewpoints, elaborately constructed as the later novels—but this is to McCarthy’s credit. That is, to read Men in Space is to encounter a novelist already aware of his capabilities, at times flexing them demonstratively. Like a punkish teenager—gangly, with occasional swagger—this book will head off in unexpected directions, but it also offers sudden bursts of erudition and a lively style.
When Men in Space opens, it’s late 1992, and Czechoslovakia is on the verge of splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia—the so-called Velvet Divorce. The Iron Curtain fell three years earlier, but some unease, and a great deal of uncertainty, lingers. Ominous relics of the old regime remain: “council workmen were removing the loudspeakers from beneath the street lamps on Lidicka.” In Prague, a group of small-time mafiosos are arranging for a Bulgarian icon to be forged so that the forgery can be “recovered” by police, which would make it easier to fence the authentic icon. The task of finding an artist to forge the icon is entrusted to Anton Markov, a soccer-loving Bulgarian with plans to immigrate with his wife to the United States.
It is Markov who introduces one of the principal features of Men in Space and of McCarthy’s work in general: the network or system that surreptitiously links people together. In this case, Markov’s activities draw into the narrative a group of bohemian artists and their far-flung circle: students, art dealers, druggies, lovers, and the police officer who, while surveilling the group, is gradually going mad. In McCarthy’s work, these chains of association are not simply about fortuitous coincidences and serendipitous encounters; they are more than advancers of plot, although they do that, too. Rather, there is a kind of higher-order design in play, revealing an inscrutable pattern in life itself, society’s Fibonacci sequence: “Chains and networks, parts all reacting to the other parts, negotiating the steps and swivels of some complex dance.”
This sense of design, mysteriously, inexorably, appears in unexpected places. Take, for example, a character’s reflection on the elaborate design of a sailboat: “The rigging, a cacophony of intersecting lines, buzzes and hums, a switchboard.”
These sorts of descriptions don’t dominate Men in Space—McCarthy is careful to parse out his philosophy in manageable doses—but they do appear with regularity, reflecting the author’s sense of “some invisible hand working the larger choreography of chance and circumstance.” To be sure, this is not a divine hand—McCarthy, in an interview, once called the novel “largely godless.” It merely reflects a kind of organizing principle and, perhaps, that despite our sense of Western society as ordered, bureaucratic, measured, life is best analogized as a code, a crypt.
It is only from a remove, it seems, that this swirl of people—the boss who gives Markov his task, the artist conducting the forgery, the women who love the artist, the struggling journalist who sleeps with one of these women, and on and on—can be decoded. That task falls to two people: an anonymous police officer who monitors people connected to the forgery and the reader. And yet, the officer is slowly going mad (what does that augur for us?). As he seems to be stepping beyond his purview, his superiors stop giving him orders; at times it appears he may no longer be part of the police force.
This unknown police officer serves as the book’s resident philosopher and earns some of its most startling lines. In one report, ruminating on his role in monitoring the conspiracy surrounding the stolen painting, he asks: “Is it in fact possible, truly possible, to do what we do, viz. to observe events, without influencing them? Don’t we, to some extent, shape the very situations on which we report, and in so doing help to form the guilt or innocence of our quarries?”
He may be drunk on quantum mechanics—Hesienberg’s Uncertainty Principle for police detectives—but his question actually bears some relevance to recent debates over the FBI’s pattern of providing would-be terrorists with fabricated plots, phony explosives, and the like. More pertinently, the police officer’s reverie recalls that McCarthy’s philosophical project is equal parts mysticism and mathematics. He’s asking us big questions: Is society reducible to pure geometry, our relations chartable on a Euclidean plane? Are we just human-sized bundles of molecules locked in orbit, with the occasional collision to add change and meaning? In McCarthy’s finely written, brilliantly envisioned novels, the answers are never neat, and the journey is nothing less than worthwhile.
Peter Behrens’s new novel immerses readers in a river of narrative that seems less like fiction than lived experience: turbulent and enigmatic, sweeping people toward destinations unknown yet inexorably determined by their inner natures and the choices they have made. Brimming with character and incident, even more ambitious in scope than its prizewinning predecessor, The Law of Dreams, The O’Briens is nonetheless at its core a quiet book; its most striking and heartfelt scenes show people reflecting on their passions, their labors, their sorrows and joys: the essentials that have given their lives meaning … or failed to.
The novel’s patriarch is Joe O’Brien, grandson of Fergus in The Law of Dreams (though this is never explicitly stated). We meet Joe when he is a teenager in Pontiac County, Quebec, in the early 1900s. He is the eldest of five children; their father was killed in the Boer War, and the family is desperately poor. An elderly priest encourages the O’Brien children to look beyond their constricted circumstances, and Joe dreams of going west and getting into the railroad business. He also dreams about “a sort of woman who was a better, finer person than he was … [he would] make himself live up to her beauty and ideals and protect her and the family they would make together.”
He meets her in 1912 in Venice Beach, Calif., where Joe’s brother Grattan is desultorily selling real estate. But Iseult Wilkins is no ethereal princess requiring protection, though she has recently lost both parents and suffers from asthma. She’s buying a house, ignoring her lawyer’s caution that “beach towns are tawdry,” and plans to live there alone, she tells Joe, because she wants “room to breathe.” Iseult knows “just what a raging, self-conscious desirous little beast she really was,” and she thinks she has found a kindred spirit in Joe.
As the idiosyncratic newlyweds head for British Columbia, where his crew is blasting railroad tracks through the mountains, Joe believes that the overwhelming sadness that has descended on him at unpredictable intervals for years is finally ended. But their first baby dies two hours after birth, while Joe is away, and Iseult savagely turns on him. “I’ve never felt an ounce of love from you,” she hisses. (Nothing we have read so far justifies this statement.) “If you cared about me the baby wouldn’t have died.” Thirty years later, when they lose a son during World War II, Iseult says, “[Joe] blames me … and I know just how he feels. There has to be someone to blame.”
The rueful self-knowledge almost all Behrens’s characters possess does not, of course, keep them from inflicting and receiving pain. Iseult and Joe raise three children to adulthood, prospering and moving to the affluent Montreal enclave of Westmount, but they are often angrily at odds. In the middle of a bustling, seemingly fulfilled existence, Joe is sometimes driven by “a longing for solitude and silence” that sends him to New York “to drink himself through the feeling of not belonging anywhere.” He always comes back, but he always leaves again. Joe had promised her “life, connection, children, meaning,” Iseult reflects bitterly. “But really people were alone. Even in marriage—perhaps most of all in marriage.”
Yet Joe and Iseult’s marriage endures, for reasons neither of them can fully explain. Behrens doesn’t explicitly analyze it either, preferring to let us glean our own insights from piercing glimpses into their lives over the course of 60 years, first from their divergent points of view and then from the perspectives of their children. Joe and Iseult can’t do without each other, even though he is perennially fixated on his own plans and contemptuous of those with no eye for detail, while she always strives to see the larger reality and believes that “the truth is a pathless land.” The conflict between our yearning for connection and our essential solitude can’t ever be resolved; it can only be accepted and—perhaps, only temporarily, pacified.
Pacified by love? Once again, The O’Briens doesn’t offer definite answers. “He had occupied her life like a foreign army,” Iseult thinks at one point. But “wasn’t it just as true that they had created a life together?” Truths can be contradictory and yet complementary in Behrens’s inclusive vision. The bulk of his story concerns the O’Briens’ crises: the deaths of children, the threat of divorce, the miseries of two wars. Reconciliations are handled glancingly, if at all; the family simply continues, settling into new patterns after each convulsion.
Yet by the final chapter, which has Joe sailing off Cap Breton with the eldest of his six grandchildren in 1960, that continuity has achieved an emotional and moral force. There is no big lesson or grand summing up—just life, experienced day to day by people struggling to make sense of it and find a reason to go on. Supple prose captures both their keening sorrowfulness and their rapturous engagement with the pleasures of the physical world. From the sepia-tinted opening tableau of an old priest waltzing with children to a hand-cranked Victrola to the spectral closing image of a man rowing out of the fog toward voices, Behrens celebrates the warmth of human attachments without pretending they can ever entirely dispel the existential chill of mortality and loneliness.
Ever since the (deserved) canonization of David Foster Wallace, any young, ambitious writer that puts out a gargantuan novel runs the risk of drawing comparisons to the Infinite Jest author. Such was the case with Adam Levin's 1,030-page doorstop The Instructions, about a 10-year-old genius with a messiah complex. Yet that novel, apart from its maximalist approach (and, OK, it also had footnotes), didn't have that much in common with Wallace's work. Levin's second book, a story collection out this month from McSweeney's, does. The tales in Hot Pink also show the influence of short-story wizards George Saunders and Steven Millhauser. More importantly, they demonstrate, as a whole, more restraint than The Instructions, a thrilling read that was nonetheless overindulgent, devoting hundreds of pages to scripture or homework assignments that didn't do much to advance the plot and seemed only to be included for the purpose of impressing critics or establishing the book's seriousness.
The stories in Hot Pink are expertly told and often quirkily sad, much like the slices of life in Miranda July's collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. "Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls" is charming and follows a legless, 15-year-old college freshman as she tries, and succeeds, to hook up with her crush, an older girl. "RSVP" is a mournful letter, in response to a wedding invitation, from a man whose best friend stole his girlfriend. And "Scientific American" is an O. Henryesque, absurdist saga of a married couple that opens with Levin's best lede—"A crack in the wall behind their bed oozed gel"—and closes with the husband learning, after years of trouble, what had caused the oozing all along.
In addition to language, Levin plays with names. In "Jane Tell," the most adult and best-paced story in the collection, the title character has a fetish for being "Ricked," or physically abused by aggressive men, whereas the narrator, who is dating her, worries that he's a dorky "Steve." Such definitions become clear through context, and once established are then used for lyrical playfulness but also deep meaning: "I'd assumed for awhile that there was a continuum: Ricks at one extreme, Steves at the other, me somewhere in the middle. But ... maybe Ricks and Steves weren't mutually exclusive: maybe certain Steves were also Ricks in certain contexts, and certain Ricks Steves. Were Steves just Ricks who were too afraid to Rick?" Nicknames also appear in the book's shortest, tightest story "The Extra Mile," a perfect bit of Jewish gross-out humor in which four old men, all widowers, get into a graphic conversation about which of them "went the extra mile," sexually, with their wives. The narrator calls two of the men "Bill the Goy" and "Clyde the Schlub."
Other tools Levin employs, many of them the same elements that made The Instructions stand out, include kid narrators (six of the ten stories are told by young people), dogs (one trained to kill on hearing the command "nasal spray," another made to eat potentially poisonous bacon), and violence of an oversized, cartoonish variety. The title story (from which the book also gets its cover illustration of balloons on a truck), about a tough-talking kid trying to impress a girl, features almost all of these elements.
Not all of Hot Pink's 10 stories show control. The very first, "Frankenwittgenstein," is about an inventor who wastes years working on "The Beautiful Body-Action Doll for the Self-Body Image-Enhancement of Toddling and Preadolescent Girls at Risk." One thinks immediately of Infinite Jest's "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" or any of the dystopian stories of commercialization in Saunders's In Persuasion Nation. But the story spirals out of control to the point of implausibility (at least Levin's narrator, the inventor's son, admits, "Our life, by this time, has become a cartoon," though it was obvious) and becomes miserable as well as outlandish as the father's obsession with the doll ravages the entire family. At the last moment, Levin abruptly bails out, makes everything go right again, and wraps it up with a happy ending.
Another story, "Relating," contains seven smaller stories (more like vignettes) that are studies in minutia. In one, a boy gets a mutt and names it Billy, but his brother is also named Billy, giving Levin ample opportunity to repeat the words "mutt" and "Billy" 44 times in a page and a half, which will either annoy or delight readers. Another explores, in faux-scholarly analysis, the act of "gerbiling" (which need not be defined here). It's clear that Levin is trying to experiment with language (from one of them: "It wasn't what drove her mad, so to speak. What drove her mad—"Drove her mad," so to speak! the woman thought; "'Drove her mad,' so to speak," the woman thought! she thought—came three days later, in their next conversation"), but only a few of them work.
Hot Pink, though not without its stumbles, indicates that Levin is a writer poised to join the ranks of the best young short-story crafters, if he so chooses, but also of smart, subversive Jewish humorists like Shalom Auslander and Sam Lipsyte. Much like The Instructions, this book will get the literary world talking.