Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Above us only sky

Arcadia started out as a horde of hippies following a traveling jam-band from gig to gig. Led in part by the intellectual idealists Abe and Hannah Stone, these groupies settled in 1968 at an abandoned mansion in western New York, with the idea of forming a perfect Utopian society: communist, vegan, totally free of such societal ills as sexual jealousy and materialism. Bit, Abe and Hannah’s son, was born in Arcadia. He is incapable of imagining any other life.

Lauren Goff’s beautiful novel Arcadia examines the rise, collapse, and disintegration of the Arcadia commune from the point of view of Bit - Arcadia’s most vulnerable member.

We see Bit when he is five, when the commune is still new, freshly optimistic, and already beset by poverty, hunger, and a chronic inability to support itself. Bit watches as his mother, Hannah, struggles with debilitating depression. The commune’s freaky free spirits cannot see Hannah’s problem clearly enough to help her; only tiny Bit knows that she is suffering. He concludes that it is his job to cure her.

Later, when Bit is a young teen, he again assumes responsibility - this time to protect and nurture the illegal activities that his parents have secretly adopted to survive within the commune. Arcadia has grown impossibly huge, nine hundred of society’s dropouts crowded into one place, rent apart by chaos, drugs, and factional infighting. It cannot possibly last.

 The novel’s last section takes place after Arcadia is gone, all its children scattered into the world. Bit, now a father himself, is a relative success; we see that many of his peers are less able to cope.

Arcadia is an extraordinary novel, lovely and sad and completely unforgettable. The story of the idealistic society torn apart by its own contradictions is perfectly paired with the story of Bit Stone, the big-hearted child, grown into an adult bewildered by the hardness of the world.

 This tiny summary hardly does justice to Groff’s rich and haunting novel. I have rarely been so moved by a book; I could not recommend Arcadia more highly.

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