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Utopia Lost April 2, 2012

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in bestsellers, literary fiction, weekly topics.
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Lauren Groff (photo by Sarah McKune)

Lauren Groff (photo by Sarah McKune)

Like genius and madness, utopias and dystopias are two sides of the same coin. Utopias, those harmonious communities of equality, idealism, and euphoria, exist only as long as human ego and greed are sublimated. Dystopias are what happens when human ego and greed rise to the surface. As far back as 360 B.C. Plato argued in his Republic that just men could create ideal societies; centuries later in Paradise Lost, Milton blamed the destruction of utopia on a tempter, while H.G. Wells published several novels featuring utopian societies. On Wednesday in #litchat we’ll discuss utopian literature, then on Friday, Lauren Groff joins us as guest host to discuss her novel, Arcadia.

Arcadia is a novel of heartbreaking brilliance. Groff’s enchanting characters reach through the pages to grip your heart, pumping it with each beat of their own, with each enlightened conversation, with each act of selflessness, cowardice, or pride. Set in the wilds of upstate New York, Arcadia is the commune of a visionary musician known as Handy. It’s the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, when idealistic young people took refuge from the establishment in music, drugs, and free-thinking. Told through the eye and understanding of Bit, the first baby born within the tribe of hippies who would three years later found the commune, the voice reads as if disembodied from the idyllic happening that was Arcadia. While Arcadia reshapes the nature around them, it reshapes the nature within the people as well. As if on the puff of a magic dragon, Arcadia sweeps through the last quarter of the 20th century, as young idealists put their faith in a flawed messiah, whose own family doubts his potency. The great commune flourishes for several years, but when it crumbles, as all utopias are wont to do, the reverberations spread deep and wide. After the fall, Bit, his parents, and the Arcadians jaded by flaccid leadership, find the outside world a harsh mistress. Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Bit takes us into his adult life, where Arcadia continues to inform his decisions, his quests, even his own child. Arcadia brilliantly explores a multitude of themes—individuality, home, nostalgia, love, animal rights, expression, freedom, sexuality, innocence, and more—without judgment, sentimentality, or stagnation.

Lauren Groff was born in 1978 in Cooperstown, N.Y. She graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals, including the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly,  Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, and Subtropics, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007 and Best American Short Stories 2010Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008.  Lauren’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, published in February 2008, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and bestseller and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Birds, is a collection of stories.

Follow Lauren Groff on Twitter: @legroff.

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