Arcadia: A Novel by Lauren Groff (New York: Voice, 2012. 304 pp)

Born in Cooperstown, New York, Lauren Groff graduated from Amherst College and later earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and Ragdale. Groff’s first book, The Monsters of Templeton, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and two sons.

Utopia 

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47 

These words, written so long ago, represent the epitome of Christian living for many traditions. When people plant churches, when they imagine a bustling community, they cite these ancient words. Let’s eat together; let’s hold everything in common; let’s give to those in need.

Outside of the church, people feel the draw of community. For some, utopia is small-town USA; for others, it’s urban density.

In each of our unique ways, we’re all trying to relate

But is such a utopian community possible?

Results suggest not.

The Search for Peace in Western New York 

Photo by Christos Tsoumplekas

Lauren Groff’s generational narrative, Arcadia, focuses on a hippie commune named “Arcadia” located in Western New York. Much like the people in the Biblical book of Acts, the hippies of Arcadia desire to live wholly together. Bit Stone, the first child of the commune, lives with his Father, Abe, and his mother, Hannah under the leadership of hippie-musician, Handy.

“You were born on the Caravan, Abe says softly, when we were a bunch of groupies, following Handy around for spiritual food. Two dozen, max. Going to the concerts, staying for the meetings after. Everywhere we went, we saw communes, some that worked, others that didn’t Yurts and geodesic domes and sweat lodges and squatted-in mansions in the inner cities, and we started having an idea that even though everybody else was doing something along these lines, what we wanted to do was unusual. Pure. Live with the land, not on it. Live outside the evil of commerce and make our own lives from scratch” (14).

Cut into four separate scenes spanning Bit’s life, the reader gains a vision of “ideal” life and its emerging cracks in the foundation. As a child, during the first scene, Bit is a happy-go-lucky kid parented by a depressive mother and carpenter father with steely resolve.

A Fragile Utopia 

In scene two, we discover the early teenage years of Bit traversing the fully developed Arcadian commune. Close to a fully formed man, Bit begins to focus on girls, especially Helle, the daughter of the commune leader and emerging femme fatale.

As Arcadia develops, the fragile community strains with the weight of continued growth and invidious labor splits. Soon, this anti-capitalist utopia struggles to survive. In these years, Bit begins to understand imperfections in life. Reminiscing about a local Amish community, he ponders:

“The oldest Utopianists, Hannah said once, watching the Amish men who came to help with the harvest; for generations, they’ve lived the most perfect lives they can believe in. Bit imagines meals of animal flesh and hard chores and a huge family and girl cousins in demure frocks. What a relief it would be to live always among family. To be among people who all look like you, think like you, behave like you, have the same God to love and fear, a God angry enough to smite and loving enough to give, a God with an ear big enough to hold the secrets you whisper into it, who lets you empty yourself and walk back into your life, infinitely lighter. He feels loss for something he’s never known” (160).

Post-Utopia 

Scenes three and four explore the ramifications of Arcadia, years after its demise. Having married and produced a child with Helle, Bit raises his daughter in New York City and teaches photography. With the utopian community scattered, Bit’s reflections on the purpose of life feel unmoored.

It takes years for Bit to comprehend the differences in culture. “Fat” and “pale” people are normal. Arcadians were the ones undernourished and overly tan due to time in the sun. Nevertheless, Bit marvels at the complexity of the real world—the fragile balance between peace and the sword.

“It leaves him breathless at times, how much faith people put in one another. So fragile, the social contract: we will all stand by the rules, move with care and gentleness, invest in the infrastructure, agree with the penalties of failure. That this man driving his truck down the street won’t on a whim, angle into the plate glass and end things. That the president won’t let his hand hover over the red button and, in a moment of rage or weakness, explode the world. The invisible tissue of civilization: so thin, so easily rendable. It’s a miracle that it exists at all” (203).

Photo by Andrew Mace

Despite the pursuit of peace and happiness everlasting, Arcadia failed to produce utopia. But, Bit’s odd upbringing does not hinder him in the slightest. In fact, his draw to the city surrounds the need to be in community, albeit New York City is a community 8 million strong.

Does the Community Succeed? 

Even though I appreciate Groff’s attempts at sketching the desire for utopian community and the lengths by which we manufacture it, I did not overly enjoy Arcadia. Most importantly, the writing style felt stunted. While I often enjoy quick chapters because it keeps me head in the game, the staccato nature of Groff’s sections made Arcadia difficult to follow.

The desire for community is a deeply felt human wish. Arcadia explores these notions in great detail, yet I found the writing style detracting. If you want to dive into a character-driven plot set in a hippie commune, you might enjoy Arcadia, but I don’t necessarily recommend it broadly.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What is utopia to you? Could it exist in real life? Do you try to create utopia in your life?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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