I have just finished Lauren Groff’s new novel Arcadia, which follows the life of Bit, the child of hippies, who grows up in a commune, the titular Arcadia. This is a beautiful, sad book, with a strong emotional charge. It moves through four time frames: beginning with Bit’s early childhood, then his teenage years, adulthood as a young father, and then as the father of a teenager. But really this novel has two halves: in Arcadia, and after Arcadia.

Bit has a powerful sense of belonging, to his family, to the community of Arcadia, the myths and stories the community tells itself. He is a believer, and he loves the idea of the community that he belongs to, and is powerfully protective of everything about it. But there is an anxiety in his attachment: his narrative, his descriptions of his world, seem shot through with an apprehension of their loss, a  terror that none of this can hold, that it will all fall apart, that the love and closeness he believes in and longs for could at any moment disappear. Bit’s narrative, espeically in the first half, when he and his parents are part of Arcadia, conveys a sense of balancing on a knife-edge, a perilous awareness of the nearness of loss.

One of the beauties of Groff’s novel is the way Bit’s perspective allows her to convey both the passionate belief in the community’s shared ideology, and the friction between adults as they try to strike their own individual balance between the community’s ideals and their human failings. There is something of the striving animals in Animal Farm about the people of Arcadia, especially Hannah and Abe, Bit’s parents, fighting poverty with lots of idealism and effort, but not enough knowledge.

The novel also provides a fascinating counter-narrative to our cliched imaginings of what communes were for, and about. The community Groff represents is radically austere, living largely off the grid, vegan, with ideals of shared property. There is plenty of sex and plenty of dope, but apart from that the community runs with the strictness of a medieval monastery: everyone must contribute, everyone must work, all goods must be held in common. In the novel’s second section, there is a heart-stopping sequence where the community’s day of celebration is over-run by party people, free loaders, drug-addled maniacs, and creepy people, who descend like a plague of eating, dope-smoking, raping locusts, and lay waste to the community. The original founders of Arcadia believed in ideals of hard work and communal living, but the people who’ve come in afterwards – and there are vast numbers of them – seem to be looking for a drug-fuelled free-for-all where there are no controls and no rules. It is terrifying and heart-breaking.

This is a novel built around a series of losses: of community, of loved ones. The novel builds toward an extended sequence depicting a death; reading it, it felt very raw, the kind of plot element that gets critics asking if the author has recently experienced a loss. In fact, the whole novel seems to be constructed around a terrible sense of the nearness of death, the closeness of mortality. The community falls to ruins, and many of the beloved children are lost. Bit, although he survives, is a lost soul, endlesly gazing back at a beautful lost past which he could feel dissolving beneath him even as he lived it.

The novel begins in the late 1960s and ends in 2018, with a world rapidly coming apart from the effects of climate change. A SARS-like epidemic rages in the background of the fourth section of the novel. The world of plenty which seems so alien to the young Bit, living in vegan simplicity on his farm, is disappearing by 2018, a time which is plagued by mass extinctions and losses great and small: Tuvalu, lettuce, bees. The pace of destruction is accelerating. Although this is background detail – the focus here, as always, is very strongly on the characters and their relationships – there is a terrible sense of bleakness through this section of the book which linked back strongly for me to the last book I read, which was Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

That, too, has a prevailing sense of despair, of end times, of our culture being at the end of things. There’s a fin du monde spirit to both these books, as they look out at a world which is dominated by images of collapse, of destruction, of despair. And although both of them try to bring a kind of upbeat spirit to their endings, the underlying sense of desolation is more powerful than the closing actions and attitudes of the narrators in both novels. Both novelists, in their different ways, seem to be describing the engines of history – with humanity’s hands on the controls of those engines –  tearing things apart. Whitehead creates a terrifying vision of an enormous mass of the unstoppable hungry dead, vast and appalling, as they sweep through Manhattan. Groff creates a different kind of vision of destruction, as the idealistic dream of community is torn apart by a mixture of internal and external forces. In both cases, the action is too large for the individual narrators to affect, or stop. There is nothing they can do. They can only watch and respond according to their nature; Lauren Groff’s Bit responds with grief, but a kind of patient fortitude; Whitehead’s Mark Spitx, a character stunned into numbness by trauma, sparks into rat-like survival mode. While both end up determined to survive and carry on, the over-riding sense is one of powerlessness.

Tonally, and in turns of subject matter, these novels have little in common; but there is an underlying sensibility to both which felt similar to me. But perhaps that’s the sensibility of the reader, rather than the authors.

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