On Arcadia

Image retrieved from laurengroff.com

Some books just begged to be discussed with others. For this very reason, I began a book club… and then started another one. But you still can’t always anticipate what is going to be a conversation-starting read, you can’t dominate reading groups with the suggestions of a single person, and you can’t count on finding someone else who find the same titles irresistible.

Lauren Groff’s novel Arcadia was one such book that I wish I’d had the opportunity to discuss with others. I originally discovered it on a Best of 2012 list, then kept it in the back of my mind as a book club pick. The allure of this book ultimately overcame my patience. I was drawn to the highly recommended novel because of it’s storyline about communal living, because of the ideals that I imagined would guide a book full of hippies and naturalists.

What I got was a little bit of what I expected and then some. Groff’s novel does center around a commune by the name of Arcadia and some of it’s members are just as you’d suspect – advocates of free love, pot-smokers, do it yourselfers. But Groff creates rich and universal characters that are far more than mere stereotypes.

Arcadia centers around one family from the commune, Ridley, also known as Bit, who is the only son of Abe the carpenter, and Hannah the depression-riddled baker and academic. We visit Bit at four periods in his life, following him from the early days of his childhood in the idyllic splendor of Arcadia, to his adolescent years when Arcadia is overrun by too many souls and not enough space. We meet him again as an adult living outside the confines of Arcadia, married to one of the other products of Arcadia and with a young daughter of his own. The final phase of the novel sees Bit as the single father of a teenage daughter, struggling with the decline of his parents and the spread of an epidemic worldwide. Through the lens of Bit’s life, Groff’s novel provides more commentary on society at large than on communal living – a topic perfectly suited for discussion.

While teaching photography at a university as an adult, Bit assigns his students the challenge of going on a digital fast, avoiding digital technologies for a period of a few days. One of his students composes a brilliant paper containing her reflections on the assignment – how technology affects our connections with one another, how it must have taken so much more effort and thought to maintain relationships with others previously, how life must have been more deeply and intensely felt in the present moment because digital technology had not yet made everything immediately available. It is a refreshing perspective on the way in which we interact with others and experience life, one that I bet would give many readers pause.

Soon thereafter, Bit considers the lack of ambition he feels as a result of his communal upbringing. In Arcadia he was never taught to constantly reach for conventional standards of success. His values were the simplest of things – happiness, safety, security. As an artist in his adult life, Bit questions whether his lack of artistic drive and his indifference to galleries and cultural renown are detrimental to his wellbeing or simply products of the system of values on which he was raised. Though the items he lists among his ideals are not foreign to non-Arcadians, they certainly constitute a very small portion of the voluminous values and indicators of success by which others measure their life’s worth.

Both expressly and indirectly, Groff meditates on community and its meaning, on achievement, and on values. Bit mourns the loss of community post-Arcadia, but finds alternatives means to satisfy it in conventional society. Within the boundaries of the commune, Bit’s history was common knowledge – even his birth story was legendary among Arcadians. His identity was not something that needed to be crafted or presented to others, but was rather a taken for granted piece of the Arcadia story. Living in New York City as an adult, Bit recognizes the city’s ability to fill the void left by his lost childhood. He recognizes the beauty of Arcadia as a product of the people and their connections with one another, not the result of its geographical location or design. In Bit’s mind, the closeness of urban cities is the best approximation of that communal connectedness in modern day life. Because what ultimately defines communes isn’t their location in oft-isolated and uber-natural locations, but the way in which their members are tied to and reliant upon on another. Though they may appear otherwise to the outsider (and I am admittedly an outsider writing here), it seems to me that communal living is ultimately about connecting with people, particularly those that share a similar mindset and desire a shared lifestyle with one another.

Maybe I’m just predisposed to romanticizing idealists and hippies, people who challenge conventional ways of living in adherence to their world views. Even if communes and Woodstock aren’t your cup of tea, Arcadia is an entertaining read as well as a challenging one. It forces us to consider whether we are consciously choosing the lives we lead and how we connect with each other.