Sunday, February 10, 2013

Arcadia by Lauren Goff is a mish mash of yearnings, a misstopia


ARCADIA is a mish mash of yeanings, a misstopia

In the utopian community in Lauren Goff’s novel, Arcadia, life is a mish mash of yearnings--for food and love, beauty and a human community perfect as nature. I take my utopias seriously and have some knowledge of religious communities, such as the Shakers and the Amish, as well as  ecstatic cults, like the one in Arcadia. Smartly, Goff gives them an Amish neighbor. This sober religious community helps their indulgent neighbors learn to farm so they don’t starve. And Arcadia returns the favor sending their midwives to aid the Amish, but the commonality is not just about mutual aid but love of the land and their people. Goff also shows in this story of a childhood on a commune, that sometimes there’s also a strong distaste of the same land and people..

The hero of Arcadia is Bit for Bit of a hippie, the miracle baby who survives, though born premature and weighing only three pounds. Through his eyes Arcadia is a physically beautiful place, but emotionally scary and erratic, mostly because of the adults. There’s his mother Hannah, happy and golden in the summer, gray and morose in the winter. Bit worries about her and tries to take care of her, since, unlike Abe, his strong engineer father, she suffers from their life of austere poverty; incessant work and deprivation.  Bit, who hears the muffled conversations of the parents he sleeps between, knows his mother is dissatisfied. This is not what she signed on for, when she and Abe helped found Arcadia and signed over her trust fund., 

Bit is frequently hungry and cold, bored with chores and the games of the “kid pack.”  When Handy, the charismatic leader goes off with his troupe to play music gigs, Abe decides to reclaim the rotting shell of Arcadia House and build a real home. Instead of dwelling in the shanty town of eratz Arcadia, they will live with toilets like regular people. And in several months, Abe organizes teams to renovate the place and make something grand. While the grownups work, Bit finds an abandoned book of Grim’s fairytales that becomes his own secret world.  

Arcadia's leader, Handy, does recreational drugs and enjoys the tribute of the women and girls available to him. His wife, the serious Swedish midwife, Astrid, accepts this, since all is held in common, from property to multiple mates and children, though Hannah makes it clear Bit is hers alone. Equality is supposed to reign, though of course Handy and his favorites don’t work. The rest, especially Hannah and Abe, are responsible for generating food, money, whatever is needed for the hundreds who call Arcadia home.

Bit, a sensitive boy, feels his mother’s despair and wanting to understand life, takes his book literally and finds danger and magic everywhere, including a mysterious white-haired woman, who lives in a cozy shack and provides him with a safe haven. Like all utopias, this one eventually collapses, after Cockaigne Day, a historic holiday Hannah organizes, unaware that news of the commune’s celebration has attracted thousands of gate crashers. There’s enough drugs and runaways to attract police and, when tragedy strikes, the deed holder to Arcadia, Handy is taken to jail. That night is a kind of coming of age for Bit. Now in his teens, he painfully recognizes his aching love for Helle, Handy’s troubled daughter.

Ready or not for the real world, Bit’s family surfaces in Queens, where he goes to a regular school and is mistakenly put ahead two years because of his advanced learning. His Arcadian friends are scattered and Bit feels a loss of spirit with the absence of friends, who grew up with him in the special community of  the commune. He goes to college, becomes a photographer, his parents split up. And he still has this feeling of huge loss until he meets Helle again. They marry and have a child but Bit’s happiness is short lived.  Helle, who ran wild and was lost in drugs and sex, can’t take stability. She leaves Bit and her child, Grete, and he is wounded for years afterward. Bit does manage to unite his parents. They return to Arcadia, where his father has built a totally functional “off the grid” house.

One of the odd and not so successful aspects of this novel is a sudden shift to the future, when the world is devastated by a killer flu. After his father dies suddenly, though not of the flu since Arcadia is sufficiently isolated, Bit goes with Grete to help his mother now also dying. Finally, he is able to come to terms with his old life and take what lies ahead

This is a novel very vividly imagined with an entirely plausible counterculture world. Unfortunately, it gets caught up in a vortex of emotional tailspins that seem more self-referential than  insightful about the utopian dream. So while I admired the world and the characters stayed with me, I found this novel unfulfilling.  Far better to read Moore’s Utopia, Ken Kesey, and a nonfiction study of Utopian communities, like the great transcendentalist one that attracted Emerson,the Alcotts and Amy Beach.

SW