Arcadia, Lauren Groff’s second novel, is a bit like the hippie commune at its centre: sprawling, chaotic, wildly optimistic in its scope, seemingly headed for sentimental failure, until – unexpectedly – it works.
The hippies who start the commune call themselves The Free People, and in 1971 they travel to upstate New York, where the principles of “Equality, Love, Work, and Openness to the Needs of Others” will shape their new community. One of The Free People has inherited a huge farm and sold the property for a dollar to their guru, Handy, whose charismatic personality is the only glue that holds the group together.
When Handy sees “In Arcadia Ego” carved over the front door of the vast crumbling mansion on the property, he decides Arcadia should be the name of their new society. He ignores his wife Astrid’s explanation, that the phrase comes from Virgil and means that death is present even in utopia. Instead Handy proclaims that there are “no egos in this Arcadia!” and his followers applaud. In this moment, we can already see the seeds of disaster: Handy preaches equality but his ego brooks no dissent; the group’s optimistic idealism cannot encompass the possibility of loss; women speak the truth but their voices are not always heard. The Free People may have arrived in Arcadia, but they cannot live in the mansion, which is actually an old orphanage, because it is so dilapidated as to be uninhabitable. Instead, the group creates what they call Ersatz Arcadia, a loose conglomeration of repurposed school buses, VW vans, and Quonset huts: Arcadia found ... Arcadia deferred. The novel’s title evokes the search for Utopia, but in fact the novel is about disappointment and loss – and how, or if, we can navigate through our losses and continue.
The novel’s hero, Ridley Stone (called Bit because he was so tiny at birth), is born in the back of a VW bus a few weeks before The Free People arrive in Arcadia. His birth story becomes Free People legend: he is the firstborn of their New World.
Bit’s childhood in Arcadia governs the first two sections of the novel, which detail the community’s complete unpreparedness for the hard work of forging a new world. If their Amish neighbours hadn’t taught them to farm, the Arcadians would not have survived their first year. “You were like babies,” an Amish neighbour explains to Bit, many decades later. “You could do nothing.” If there are problems, people are assigned hug therapy, or a “work yoga”, or subjected to a Community Critique, in which the entire group scolds an errant member for things like “bringing down all our energy ... you dig?”
Because Bit is a child in these early sections, he does not always see the full picture. He sees a fire that kills a child but not the smouldering cigarette in the sheets that started the flames; he feels his mother’s unhappiness but doesn’t know she’s suffered a late-term miscarriage. By the time he is a teenager, Arcadia has become dangerously overpopulated because Handy won’t turn anyone away. Handy wants to be “guru ... Teacher, but not … Leader”; he wants the power of being a leader and none of the responsibility. Eventually, Handy’s inability to govern leads to Arcadia’s spectacular and deadly collapse, and to the dispersal of most of The Free People. Bit and his family flee,
and find unlikely refuge in a sixth-floor walkup in New York City.
From / The National