Monday, January 14, 2013

Reading Journal: Arcadia

I couldn't sleep last night, so finally had the time to finish Arcadia (Lauren Groff, Voice Publishing, 2012).

It took me an unforgivably long time to figure out what Arcadia is about. The plot centers around a 1970s commune in up-state New York, as seen through the eyes of the first child born into the group, Bit Stone. Bit observes as the community at first thrives, then disintegrates when it becomes too heavy to support its own weight. The book concludes 40 or so years later, in a near-future dystopian landscape of virus pandemics and an irreparably damaged ecosystem. It's an engaging read simply as a narrative about community.

But what Arcadia is about finally hit me in a scene in which Bit, who has grown up to be a photography professor, is talking with a student who wants an A but has received an A-. Bit tells her, "An A means perfect. I've never had a perfect student. Nobody is perfect." My reaction to Bit's statement was entirely mediated by my inner English teacher. I've seen other teachers' rubrics that require 0 typos and 0 grammatical errors to earn a perfect score; these requirements make me angry. A student who works hard, who demonstrates an understanding of the material, who has clearly grown through the completion of an assignment, does not deserve to have points docked for an isolated misplaced comma. I can think of no better way to discourage a student from a love of learning and writing than to insist on perfection. Bit's requirements for perfection are even more stringent, so stringent that it's literally impossible to meet them. And he knows that. He has set his students up to fail. This is when I lost my patience with Bit Stone, and understood what Groff was trying to accomplish in the novel: an exploration of whether perfection is really perfect.

Groff's answer is, I think, no. Bit tries and fails to build the perfect community and the perfect family. The tragedy, Bit would have us believe, is his failure to achieve perfection, the failure of the community around him to cooperate. The failure is the charismatic commune leader's tendency to issue undemocratic edicts and duck actual work, the community members' failure to understand how to support themselves, his mother's failure to will-power her way through her depression, and Bit's own failure to cure his mother of her sadness. But Groff's idea of tragedy is Bit's failure to appreciate the versions of perfection that do exist, the perfection in the way his community does function.

At the same time, Groff wonders how we know who we are. Are our own identities self-created, created by the perceptions of those around us, or innate? When teenage Bit leaves Arcadia with his parents, he finds himself undone: "The warp of stories that had always blanketed him, his personal mythology, was invisible, so nobody knew him; no one knew he was the miracle baby, Little Bit of a Hippie, Abe and Hannah's boy; . . . they didn't know anything at all." And if no one knows the mythology, who is Bit Stone? He's just Ridley Sorrel Stone, "named for a town we never did see," just as no one in the Outside can see Bit as he sees himself and expects to be seen.

Perfection, Groff leads us to conclude, is, like our own identities, self-created. Toward the end of the novel, Bit's mother, echoing the perspective Bit's has taken throughout, bemoans the fact that if Bit hadn't had to take care of everyone else, he could have been an artist. Unexpectedly, Bit answers, "I am an artist." That moment of self-identification and self-awareness shows Bit as he has grown to be, a person who can create his own perfection when he needs to, and can accept others as he finds them.

These are just a few thoughts on a very meaty novel. I haven't even mentioned Bit's wife, Helle, whose experience of Arcadia is the nightmare inverse of Bit's, or the role that irreversible climate change plays in enhancing the novel's theme. There's enough material in Arcadia for several seminar-length essays. But I'll spare you, and answer the one question you care about:

Recommended? Yes.

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