Although I haven’t read any actual reviews, I know from seeing this title included in so many Best-of-2012 lists that the lauded reactions have reflected both quantity and quality. Leave it to me to take a somewhat contrary position: while I went through the whole gamut of emotions with Arcadia (narrator Andrew Garman begins with just enough wide-eyed youthful innocence that gently morphs into a middle-aged resignation), by title’s end, I still preferred Lauren Groff‘s 2009 collection, Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories, and I could certainly name other 2012 titles that I would give more substantial kudos.
Arcadia follows some four decades in the life of Bit Stone, named so because he “is tiny, a mote of a boy.” His claim to local fame is that he’s the first child born on the 1960s commune in upstate New York called Arcadia – initially known as Ersatz Arcadia before the proper Arcadia House is built. The book’s first half follows Bit’s boyhood as he introspectively observes the ecstatic hope of founding a utopian society, and its inevitable demise through too much drugs and sex, and not enough objective leadership.
Fast forward suddenly to Bit as a father, cuddling his young daughter Grete who is not yet sleepy. Absent is Bit’s wife, she who was Helle – wild, troubled, and lost again – the daughter of Arcadia’s wayward leader. On the wall across from their daughter’s bed is a mural, as yet unfinished, that captures Bit’s memories of an Arcadia that no longer exists, a time still heady with beauty and potential. All grown up and out in the ‘real world,’ Bit is a professor of photography; he tries to keep his splintered family together, be both parents to his only child, keep up with a few scattered friends, and teach his students. When a tragic emergency calls him back to Arcadia where his father went gone off-the-grid years ago, Bit is led back to his past … and finally begins to envision a future.
While the whole book is gorgeously written – Groff conjures intimate details with such evocative precision as to place you right there on every page – the two halves read like opposites: the first half is predictably foreseen, the second half unexpectedly fresh. That said, to fully appreciate (sigh and sniffle over) the latter, you’ll need to patiently invest 150 pages in the former. For me, no regrets; curiosity would not have let this book go unread.