Thursday, July 5, 2012
But you can feel what they're feeling — and that's one of the qualities of this novel that gave me that feeling in my stomach I can't explain, but only get when I've read a novel I really love. This is a novel you read (and savor) as much for the writing as for the story. Both are fantastic.
We start in the mid 70s when Bit is five years old. Arcadia is in its formative years (like Bit), and we see the struggles and successes of creating a "utopian society," and the potential pitfalls of shielding children like Bit and his friend Helle, the daughter of the commune's founder/de facto leader Handy, from the Outside. Next we see Bit as a teenager, now in love with the tragic Helle — who bears more than a passing literary resemblance to Jenny from Forrest Gump. Helle has spent time on the Outside and has acquired a wild streak, now thinking that her and Bit's parents' dream of a communal utopia is misguided and naive.
Indeed, as we move on to the final two sections — Bit in his late 30s in modern times, now with a child and sad story, and then Bit in his mid-50s in the future, caring for his aging mother Hannah (his symbol of constancy and love) — one of the constant themes of the story is how expectations or intentions (even the best ones) often clash with harsh reality. Life can be disappointing, even for the most noble.
One of my favorite — and perhaps most heartbreaking — passages in the book describes Bit seeing a fat woman sitting on a bench in a train station, crying. Bit is appalled that no one will stop to comfort her, to ask her what's wrong. So he walks towards her, and notices a sign that says "crying woman" and a hat for donations; a weird piece of performance art. But Bit realizes that life is cruelest when it tricks you into sympathizing, but as a result of something that's not genuine.
The inside flap blurb for Arcadia alludes to Groff as "one of our most accomplished literary artists," which sounds a little high-falutin, bordering on pretentious. But I can't think of a better way to describe this novel than as a literary work of art. It's absolutely incredible — not just one of my favorite of the year, my favorite in a long, long time. Five stars.
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 11:40 AM