I recently read Arcadia by Lauren Groff. It was the type of book that created its own world and described things that I’ve seen every single day, but made me look at them in new ways. A child with pink, starfish hands. The detail in this novel takes my breath away, but even more so, the punctuation. Recently, the New Yorker wrote an article about our fear of semicolons. Clearly, this is not so for Groff.
Bit can pick out sentences, can follow along the swoops of emotion in Abe’s voice, can sound out headlines to himself. Parts of the world click into shape, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But the puzzle is alive; it grows; new pieces appear for him to fit together faster than he can gather them in his mind. (21).
Arcadia tells the story of a family struggling on a hippie commune. It speaks to the beauty and terror of community and family life in a completely new way. This book has a lot to say about the way we idealize our childhoods, and whether our memories are to be trusted.
At one point, Bit, the main character, thinks:
Best to distrust this retrospective radiance: gold dust settles over memory and makes it shine. (236).
What’s interesting to me is that the stylistic choices of the author forces the reader to be present for every word of the story. It’s almost overwhelming. This book is less than 300 pages, and yet, it took me a long time to read it because it is emotionally exhausting.
There was one part of the book that took me out of it, and I noticed that specifically because it hadn’t happened previously. It wasn’t because of bad writing. In fact, the writing was quite wonderful:
What Bit hated most in all the Outside world, hated with an irrational, puking hatred, was the goldfish in the pet store a street away, its endless dull slide around the glass. When he passed the store on his way to school, he crossed the street. He was afraid of himself, of how badly he wanted to smash his fist through the window, to cradle the fish in his bloody hands and carry it down to the river. There he would dip it to the surface and free it into the terrible cold water. It might have been swallowed in a second, a sudden jagged mouth out of the black. But at least that second it would feel on its body a living sweetness, a water that it hadn’t dirtied with its own dying body. (188).
I read that and I knew and I had heard it somewhere. Not in a way where I thought Groff had committed plagiarism. It’s like this: it’s a sunny day, and you’re driving on the highway. Your windows are down, and you smell something that contains one note of your grandmother’s perfume, and you can see her jade ring and the pearls looping around her neck, and you have to remind yourself to keep your hands on the steering wheel. It’s the weaving in of collective borrowing that all writers must do, whether it be intentional or not, and I knew this was a case of it. I don’t even think it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I’m the only one who would make this connection (just because these books are so different): The Catcher in the Rye. So what did I do when I finished Arcadia? I reread The Catcher in the Rye for the nth time.
The beginning of what I remembered was on the fourth page:
He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best on in it was “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. (4).
Holden is talking about a book his brother, D.B., wrote before he became a big Hollywood writer (I’ve always wanted someone to write film reviews in the voice of Holden Caulfield, I think it would be spectacular). This specific story isn’t referenced again, but it is an underpinning throughout the book. We don’t need to read D.B.’s version of “The Secret Goldfish” because Holden has given us everything we need to know, beautifully. For Holden’s story, we can see a little kid holding a plastic bag filled with water, and one goldfish. He’s holding it carefully so none of the water will spill out, and yet, he must have it covered by his coat, so that no one can see it. And yet, anyone reading The Catcher in the Rye would see that goldfish vividly, in their own way. Part of the reason we understand a character like Holden Caulfield is because we understand what this story means to him, and he becomes part of us.
Bit’s goldfish is different. At times, he has a ‘Holden Caulfield’ sadness, but his reaction to the actual physical fish is different. He fantasizes about breaking that goldfish free and doesn’t act on it. This isn’t because he is yellow, as Holden describes himself, but because Bit is afraid of his anger. Both characters have emotions that they are hesitant to express. Bit wants the goldfish to be free because that is how he views his childhood, or how he wants to view his childhood. At one point in the novel, Helle tells Bit:
You’re not remembering right. Your memory’s doing some kind of crazy gymnastic routine to get happy out of our childhood.
What? Bit said, feeling a creeping sickness in him. (201).
Bit fantasizes about breaking through the glass; Holden does it. When his brother Allie dies, Holden smashes through all of the windows in his garage. He tells us this because he is writing a descriptive paper for Stadlater, his roommate at Pencey, and he decides to describe Allie’s lefty baseball mitt. Holden’s anger is primarily self-destructive; many characters in Arcadia accuse Bit of taking care of everyone but himself.
In my opinion, both characters are in pain over the loss of childhood innocence, and not only their own. Holden sees expletives written in his old school, and hates that the little kids will see it and find out what it means. He wants to be the catcher in the rye. Bit sees little kids with pills, little kids close by when adults are doing inappropriate things, and he wants to protect them, but he can’t, just as he couldn’t protect himself.
Holden, who, as we know, usually hates everyone for at least a little bit, ends the novel missing everyone.
I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start to miss everybody. (277).
Bit is a different character, of course, but there is something about the way he thinks that reminds me of Holden.
The voices of women at night on the street, laughing; he has always loved the voices of women. Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath. (289).