Sometimes I just want to read a book from beginning to end as quickly as possible. Too often I’m halfway through a handful of books, chipping away at each of them in tiny portions when I’m on the train, and not terribly invested in any of them. Not having finished a book in a few weeks gives me the lethargic, underperforming feeling that some people get from not going to the gym. I recently spent five weeks mired in a life of Grant, some theology by Chesterton, and two novels that I started with optimism and then abandoned in disappointment (reading the early works of a writer you discovered via their later works is such a cruel gamble). At least I enjoyed the Grant biography, enormously in fact, but five weeks of reading with only one book added to my shelf was demoralizing.
I was then granted two pieces of good fortune. The first, a weekend with nothing to do. Oh, March 24 and 25, how delightfully brunch- and errand-free you were. The second, Arcadia by Lauren Groff. I had seen the beautiful cover, and my former bookselling co-workers were all tweeting about it, so I decided I would devote the weekend to it, hoping to recapture that ol’ reading magic.
I have never unwittingly made such a good reading decision. Arcadia was perfect for this venture, both because I was immediately in love with it, and because the book itself is about experiences that wrap around you until the outside world fades away.
The book is titled after a hippie commune where our hero, Bit, grows up in the 1970s. Arcadia’s charismatic founder and leader, Handy, is a folk singer, drug enthusiast, and inspiring speaker, whom the members of Arcadia traveled with until settling on a donated farm in rural New York. The commune supports itself with profits from Handy’s concert tours, a store that sells handmade goods, and occasionally the sale of drugs.
Arcadia is uniformly vegan, occasionally nudist, usually stoned, ostensibly dedicated to equality, and can be difficult to endure, with its cold winters, hand-me-down clothes, isolation, gossip, and scant rations. But these more sensational aspects of commune life, except for the gossip, are on the periphery of Bit’s experience of Arcadia. To him it is a beloved home, a nurturing village of people where he grows up with dozens of surrogate parents and sibling, falls in love for the first time, learns about sex and drugs, and delivers babies.
The novel is divided into four parts, dropping in on Bit when he is 5, 15, 35, and 45 (roughly), and tracing the lifespan of Arcadia from optimistic experiment to perhaps inevitable demise, then as the legacy that Bit carries with him in his adult life. As a child, Bit is brought up on the dream of Arcadia, believing it as second nature. Even when he is 15, and the cracks in Arcadia’s foundation have become chasms, Bit is still a true believer at heart. In the middle of a photography workshop one day, part of Arcadia’s wide-ranging tutorial program, “he feels, with a gathering of wonder, how this is exactly what makes Arcadia great: this attention to potential, this patience for the individual, the necessary space for the expansion of the soul.”
In the poem “Angel” by Lermontov, an angel is flying down from heaven to deliver an infant soul to the world. As he flies, he sings a beautiful song, more beautiful than any earthly music.
And within the young soul the sound of his songs
Remained, wordless, but alive.
For the rest of his life, that soul vainly yearns for the songs of heaven. Minus a bit of the Russian melodrama, Bit reminds me of this poem. The ideals of Arcadia in their purest form had been instilled in Bit at his purest age, and he never gets over it.
Bit’s Arcadia is such a thrumming, vivid, beautiful place, it’s hard to believe Groff herself did not grow up there. Reading it in one fell swoop as I did, I felt that I too was walking the rolling hills of New York with a bunch of hopeful nudists. And it’s easy to see why even decades later, Arcadia feels more real to Bit than his life in New York City, why he’s always more attuned to the past.
“It isn’t important if the story was ever true” he says, “he knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.”
The real story of Arcadia — the story of an exciting but flawed leader whose oversized dreams eventually can’t sustain themselves — is an interesting but perhaps a common one. Bit’s version of the story, of a place and group of people that wanted to be perfect, is the one he needs. Groff lets both stories exist, showing us how Bit forms one from the other, and how his version shapes his life.