Image by Sarah McKune

Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, released this past spring, describes the rise and fall of the fictional titular commune from its founding by a band of wandering idealists in upstate New York in 1971 to its implosion and ultimate dissolution in the early 1980s. In Arcadia, all material goods are shared, the group is strictly vegan, and members aren’t punished for transgressions, but rather submit themselves to “Creative Critiques”. Groff’s language in describing the commune, or intentional community, is gorgeous: a woman’s face is “kind as a field of dandelions”; apple trees are “stark and ancient, heaped goblins”; snow is “sunbright powder”.

Through the eyes of Bit — the first child born on the commune — we watch as Arcadia is founded, grows, and eventually fractures under mounting pressures and eventually dissipates in the wake of a catalytic tragedy. We follow Bit as he leaves the community and enters “the real world” — and New York City — for the first time at 14, and as he navigates adulthood well into the 21st century. Whether or not you’ve ever felt the urge to up and leave society, Arcadia will make you at least consider the option.

I met with Groff at Housing Works in Soho, where we talked about intentional communities, optimism vs. pessimism, the oncoming apocalypse, and a future separatist community of women writers.

So many intentional communities were founded in upstate New York. I liked that Arcadia was founded there, too.

So many. In the 1840s, preachers came through and they called it “the burned-over district” because suddenly people were catching fire. Not literally — it was “God’s fire.” They became radicalized. There was a group called the Millerites, for instance, throughout upstate New York and New England. They believed that the world was going to end, and they gave away everything that they had, and then they climbed up to the tops of hills in these white robes and they waited. And the world didn’t end, so they came back down, and some of those people actually became part of splinter groups. And then there’s Shakers. Up in Albany, there’s this amazing abandoned Shaker community that I wondered around in. It’s very ghostly. It’s by the airport.

Do you think all intentional communities have a lot in common?

There’s a lot in common, even though sometimes philosophies are completely different. The thing I responded to most was the idea that people would give up everything that they held dear — their families and their educations, a lot of times, and just put that aside and go and attempt to make something new and something beautiful. And I found something just so noble about that effort, and so hopeful. And I found a lot of them understood the history of utopian communities, intentional communities that came before. So they were aware of the pitfalls that happen. That doesn’t mean that they always avoided them, but there’s a great respect for what came before. The only thing that I can really see in common is just the ability to put things aside and try again, and try anew.

The optimism?

Yeah, the optimism!

That was something that really struck me when I was reading the descriptions of the community in Arcadia — everyone is so optimistic. 

You kind of have to be, right?

You do! You don’t form a commune based on pessimism.

Or do it half-heartedly because you know it’s not going to work out. I mean, you don’t just throw everything you’ve got into it. You have to be optimistic. And I wanted to live among optimistic people, for a while. There’s just so much cynicism in the world.

The 1970s were such a popular time for creating intentional communities like Arcadia. I was trying to think of any communities like that that have been created in current times, and the first thing that came to mind was Zucotti Park and Occupy. Do you know of any other examples of people today who still have that kind of optimism, and who are starting their own communities?

I love that you mentioned Zucotti Park, because that happened almost after I finished everything with the book, and the very nugget of why I wrote this book is because I felt so hopeless. You remember four years ago? Everything felt hopeless. The stock market crashed, everyone lost jobs, and we were already how many years into this horrible war that it feels like we’re never going to get out of. It just felt like lassitude. Everywhere you looked were just people shouting at you, but nobody doing anything about it. . . . I think that that’s there, still, but I love these burbling acts of resistance.

Do you think something like Arcadia is possible today?

I do. Well, throughout the history of human habitation on the planet there have been these little offshoots of people who go and try to make a better life for themselves. I think that’s ingrained in our genetic matter, and it should be ingrained in our genetic matter. And it has a lot of bad ramifications, too — manifest destiny, for instance. I mean, that comes from the same impulse. America is formed from exactly this impulse in the human creature — to break off; start anew; start anew. But what happens when we come to the end of newness? We have colonized the Earth. Where do we go now? We’re not going to go to Mars.

Or have a colony on the moon.

Or have a colony on the moon! We’re going to have to shift the way that we’ve always done things. I think we’re coming up against that reality right now, and it’s scary.

In the last section of Arcadia, you explore these questions. The end of the book takes place in the very near future, when some really scary things that experts are currently predicting will happen are actually starting to happen.

That was directly a function of being a parent, and the ethical dilemma that is involved in having children in a world that’s overcrowded. Also, when you talk to a lot of people who are used to being in intentional communities and communes and things like that, there is this funny shift that happens for a lot of them, where the reaction now becomes a little bit apocalyptic, in a way.

In the book, all the former commune dwellers become very pessimistic.

Very pessimistic. And I don’t think we shouldn’t be optimistic, but I think a healthy portion of pessimism is really necessary right now. And realistic, too. But I also think, you know, at the time [that Arcadia was founded], too . . . there was a lot pessimism. There was the threat of nuclear winters and things like that. There’s just this constant anxiety hanging over human beings from the beginning of our history, way back when the lions came out of the forest and ate us. It’s just . . . the technology has changed; the pressures on the human microbe have adapted. We’ve always had this fear, but also this simultaneous hope. It’s one of our best traits, I think.

The language you used in Arcadia, especially in the sections that take place in the commune, was so inventive and evocative. When Bit gets his hair combed, for example, you write that “the teeth of the comb are so gentle on his scalp, it feels like crying.” Was the language something that developed organically, or was it something that you thought about very explicitly?

I think the way that you tell a story has to somehow marry the story that you’re telling. I don’t know if, at the time, I was aware of the language that I was using. I work in lots of drafts. The first draft is always longhand, then I throw it out and start over again. It’s very wasteful, and it takes a lot of time to do it that way. But what happens is, from draft to draft, if you’re not looking at what you’ve already written, you remember the things that are the most powerful to you. And so this first part of the book — first and second part of the book — [Bit] saw everything so intensely because it was a very emotionally intense part of his life. And so from one draft to another, the things that remained were the things that really struck him. I don’t really know. I did know that for the third part — that’s really the low point in this experience, I think — I did know that I wanted make language older, because the world was older; the world that he interacted with. But I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that you just go on your gut, I think.

What has your experience been, as a female writer? It’s a topic that has been discussed a lot in the past several months, especially after the VIDA count came out.

Oh my god, yeah. I could go on for like five hours. I feel very passionate about this.

I do, too. Feel free to go on!

One of the things is that you’re constantly aware of the fact that you’re a female writer. I’m so happy to talk about it — as I said, I’ll talk forever — but I don’t think that if you sit down with a male writer, you or any interviewer asks, “What’s it like to be a male writer?”

You’re right, I wouldn’t ask that question.

Right? What’s funny is that I was a writer before I had kids, and after. And it just intensifies with children, because people assume that when you have children, they get in the way of work. And actually, I’m at this writer’s colony right now, and someone was telling a story about a well-known, older male novelist. She’s really good friends with him, and he told her once — twenty-five years ago — he said, “Never have kids. If you have kids, you won’t be a serious artist.” And she went on to have a child, and he was like, “Well, there you go. You’re not going to be a serious artist.” It’s a perception thing. It’s infuriating.

What I used to do when I taught undergraduates was take little pieces of text — at the beginning of the semester, I’d take off the names [of the authors], and have kids rate the individual pieces of text . . . and then if I were teaching two classes I’d switch the names and give the women’s texts male names and the male texts female names, to have a control. And people always said the male texts were better, just by the mere fact that there was a male name attached to them. It’s a perception issue. I don’t actually believe that men are better writers than women. I don’t believe that having children makes you a worse writer or a lesser artist. And I don’t believe that men don’t want to read women. I believe that everybody goes into the act of reading and writing with an open heart. But society has closed us down — women and men. It’s infuriating. It’s frustrating. We’re just going to have to write harder in order to show the world that women can write as well as men. I love VIDA because they bring this to people’s attention over and over and over again.

That said . . . for some reason, I think it is true that women possibly don’t submit as much, and don’t stand up for their work as strongly. . . . Some days I get really down about this whole, even, question of women in fiction. Of all places, shouldn’t we just know that women are equal in fiction? I mean, we’re all artists, we’re open-minded and progressive — but I guess not.

It’s frustrating.

I guess the next time you interview a man, you can ask about being a man writer.

Yes!

And, “how do you manage having children and writing at the same time?”

Did you read a lot of utopian literature while you were researching Arcadia? Do you have any books or authors you’d recommend?

Sure! Ursula Le Guin I absolutely adore. She’s so amazing. Campanella wrote this book called The City of the Sun. . . . Plato’s Republic, of course — everybody should read it over and over again. It shifts as your life shifts. Let me see . . . Samuel Butler’s Looking Backwards. William Morris’s From Nowhere. . . . Oh, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which was the beginning of it all. Actually, that’s a really funny book, if you read it. I mean, there are golden toilets in it. And babies play with rubies — those are their playthings, because they’re shiny; because money doesn’t mean anything there. It’s a really wonderful book. . . . People take it very seriously, but I think it was meant to be a satire. No one really knows. Some people think that these are things More actually believed, and a lot of people think, “No, this is all a joke,” ripping the shit out of it. So, it’s a mystery book.

But you know what’s funny about utopian literature? If they’re novels, there’s very little tension in them — because if it’s a perfect world, there’s nothing. There’s no friction.

I was thinking that, while I was reading Arcadia — of course the commune has to fall apart, because if it succeeded, there would be no story.

It has to! Like Paradise Lost — the most boring sections are in the Garden of Eden. They’re so boring! They’re so horrible. “The Angel Raphael came down, and spoke for a very long time about God.” But yeah, when Satan comes in, that’s when it gets really exciting. So a lot of these [utopian novels] are interesting in a sort of survey, a sort English 101 sort of way, but I wouldn’t recommend them for entertaining reading. They’re just not. Except for Ursula Le Guin, who is always worth reading.

I read a lot of dystopias, too. Like The Road, have you read that?

Oh my god.

Oh my god!

It’s devastating. I finished it, and just started sobbing.

I read that when I was pregnant, which is what precipitated my downward spiral.

I can see why it would!

Oh my god. It’s the opposite of a happy ending fairy tale. It’s just hell.

Futuristic dystopias are especially popular in young adult novels these days. They’ve saturated the market. 

Yeah, what is up with that? You tell me.

I don’t know! Maybe it’s like what you were saying — that four years ago, the overarching rhetoric was “it is not going to get better, it is only going to get worse” and these are the books that came out of that.

. . . So, I have a very dark idea about why this is. I think writers may be the canaries in the coal mine. I think literature is just getting darker in general. The books that are out now are [getting] darker, and darker, and darker. And I’m just afraid that it’s a way to prepare —

For The Road?

For the oncoming apocalypse! I don’t know. That’s the worst possible interpretation. But possibly, you know?

Gosh, this is a sad note to end on.

I know. Let’s say: “And in the future, all women writers will be appreciated!”

Yes! We’ll form our separatist community and write very hopeful books.

There you go! Yes, we will. Very hopeful books. We’ll change the way the world is trending; we’ll occupy Zuccoti Park. It’ll be beautiful. And rainbows! Rainbows will come out of the sky.


 

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  • Edward Kerstein

    Ezra Pound: “Artists are the antennae of the race”