Grace Liew's Reviews > Arcadia

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
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's review
Aug 25, 2012

liked it

Breezed through this book. A compelling story about commune life in the 1970s, from the perspective of a child born within it and later leaves when the commune disintegrates.

I haven't read any Lauren Groff before, but I can see her appeal. I love the language when it merges with certain points in the plot (floaty, associative, dreamy & non-sequitor), but at other, more urgent moments, I speed-read/skimmed through the sentences to get faster to the point. The stylized language gets tedious & mundane when it's not paying attention to the story.

Also not a fan of the time gap in the story. The shift in voice is jarring: Bit (the protagonist) is little and his thoughts are immediate, descriptive—then in the second half Bit becomes older and his thoughts are much more analytical. Everything & everyone else is mostly summarized (ie, the fall of the commune, the relocation of various people, the return into the real world) in such a way that I don't get close enough to the scene of the train wreck to become invested in the supposedly high stakes. The closest we get to understanding the emotional toll is through Bit, but he is a pretty passive character and intentionally opaque at times.

I was drawn to the book because I wanted to see how the topic (of a large commune's successes and eventual failure) is done, and I think it comes out quite beautifully under Groff's pen. It doesn't, however, leave much food for thought. For instance, the characters stances puzzle me: everyone is universally disgruntled with the leader, Handy, but none is portrayed to be intelligent enough to confront him/change the situation? Handy's capture seems like a very arbitrary/lazy motivating event that causes the fast unravelling of the whole commune. There are traces of measured cynicism when the novel is describing the naked yogas, soy cheeses, pets as equivalent to slavery, but I cannot understand what that cynicism is trying to do. At the end of it I get the sense that the novel wants to be more clever and self-aware than it actually is (with the various labels and catchphrases like "neocon's wet dream"), but that's just it—the novel ends up borrowing much too heavily from longstanding stereotypes in many of its key moments.

DO read it for the very visual, stylistic voice, and a somewhat chaotic insight into commune life. DON'T read it for a hard and fast stance or thoughtful parsing of counterculture/the commune experience.
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