Arcadia by Lauren GroffAisles

After the Commune

by Lauren Groff
Review by Benjamin Craig

s an adult reader I have developed a system for categorizing my reading that is both useful and shamelessly simplistic. Books are sorted into two categories: fun or edifying. Periodically, a book weasels its way into both categories, but more often a book tries to convince me it can be both, and falls flat on both counts. I am an impatient reader. I don’t finish most of the books I begin. I’ve given myself permission to simply stop when I’m done, rather than when the book thinks I should be done. If this sounds like an antagonistic relationship I’m having with my bookshelf, that’s because it is.

Lauren Groff’s Arcadia has upset the cart. I began reading the story of Bit Stone, the five-year-old, then fourteen-year-old through whose eyes the reader sees Arcadia, a hippie commune of the sixties, with the understanding that this would be a "fun" read. The sometimes overworked metaphors and naïve perspective of Bit combine neatly to keep the pages turning, the characters from becoming too complex, and the lessons about charismatic but morally ineffectual leaders rolling along at a brisk pace. The second half of the book follows Bit as an adult, now thirty with a wife and a home, finding his way in “the Outside.” As a child, Bit never knew the world outside the commune, and now his adult experiences are tinted by mainstream society's overwhelming complexity and ambiguity. This is all deftly handled, clear, and thoughtful. But it still read "fun" to me. I like fun, I enjoyed reading the book, and I finished it.

It was only on reflection that the book’s structure came into play. That missing sixteen-year period comprising Bit’s slow, painful assimilation is absent—a funny move on Groff’s part. The book is ostensibly about Bit’s difficulty in making that adjustment, but we don’t get to see it. We see the background to that struggle, and we see its remnants, but those years themselves doesn't appear on the page. It is such an unexpected way to handle the topic: by skipping over the most painful part of Bit’s growth from child to adult, Groff avoids the clichés of the bildungsroman and directs the reader instead to study the effects of an intense coming-of-age—in the person of adult Bit—rather than the process.

It would be too much to declare the book “an achievement,” but it has some of the marks of one. It does things that are rarely done, and does them well. Groff maintains an attention to detail that is subtle and effective, giving the world of the commune and the world outside it just enough complexity to feel authentic while keeping the story moving forward. The real beauty of the book is that it is fun to read and edifying on reflection. It does not try to be both things at the same time, settling smartly for being each one in turn.

Benjamin Craig is a managing editor at this magazine. In the fall issue, he wrote about Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.