AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, the story behind a new novel that's getting a lot of critical attention. It's called "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff. And if dystopia is all the rage in fiction now, Groff bucks that trend by exploring utopia. She imagines life in a 1960s utopian community. Her story is told through the eyes of a child who grows up on a commune and eventually must learn to live in the real world.
NPR's Lynn Neary recently spoke with the author.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Not long ago, when Lauren Groff was pregnant with her first child, she got into a depression. She was living in a new town where she didn't know anyone, waiting for her first book to be published and wondering what kind of world she was bringing her child into.
LAUREN GROFF: And so this book came as an act of willpower. I was trying to will the world into caring and will myself into being happy.
NEARY: Groff was fascinated by the idea that people keep trying to live by utopian ideals, even though so many of these communities ultimately fail. She began researching utopian societies and eventually focused on two. Oneida, a 19th century intentional community in upstate New York, and The Farm in Tennessee, a 1960s commune that's gone through changes, but still exists.
In an interview about The Farm, its founder, Stephen Gaskin, described how it began.
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STEPHEN GASKIN: He says, you've got a good amount of land. We got to do it together so we can work. We got to try to live our future that we have talked about for so long and we left to go to Tennessee.
NEARY: Groff says she borrowed some details from The Farm to create her own fictional commune. But "Arcadia," unlike The Farm, is doomed to fail. Though it delivers on some of its utopian ideals, the commune is also fraught with tension. Pragmatists clash with the charming but feckless leader, Handy, over down-to-earth matters like how to feed the growing number of people who want to live there.
The story of "Arcadia" is told through Bit, a small child who roams freely all over the commune and is a keen observer of his surroundings.
GROFF: Bit clearly does not understand everything that he sees, but it makes an impression upon him. And I love that about him. I think he's a very open character. He's given all the love in the community without necessarily being told he can't do things, so he's an open, vulnerable character.
NEARY: Bit has a special status in "Arcadia" because he was the commune's firstborn, arriving unexpectedly on the road before they settled down. They called him Bit because he was so small. The woman who helped with the birthing would become the commune's chief midwife.
GROFF: (Reading) That morning, Astrid knew she'd found her calling. Her hands were meant to coax babies into the world. You were a gift, she said. She wrapped you around and around with a thick wool scarf and went to the grocer's and weighed you. You were three pounds exactly, the size of an itty bitty butternut squash.
NEARY: Bit and his friends grow up with few rules. They soak in the beauty of nature and study what they want, but they're often hungry and sometimes neglected by their parents. When they reach adolescence, they're easily tempted by the drugs and sex that surround them. When the commune finally breaks down, they move out into a world they don't fully understand, a move that is traumatic for Bit.
GROFF: He goes straight to the city. And so he's distanced from what he loves so deeply in the world, which is nature. I mean, he's distanced from these beautiful upstate New York winters and springs and mornings and sunrises, and he doesn't get any of that. And so he feels almost as if his soul is being squeezed.
NEARY: Groff takes her characters well into adulthood, through marriages, parenthood and illnesses, ending in the not-too-distant future. Some land in adulthood as damaged goods. Others adapt to the real world and thrive. Through it all, a core group remains connected by the common experience of life in "Arcadia."
GROFF: Oh, they love each other so much. Yeah. And that's what I really was looking for in this book. I was trying really hard to find a community with people who followed one another and cared for one another outside of the bounds of family.
NEARY: Groff says her own view of communes changed as she wrote the book. In the beginning, she was skeptical.
GROFF: By the end, I saw that a lot of the people who did create communes like this were very smart and studied very hard and knew what they were doing. And they were intentionally naive. They looked at the world and they looked at their fellow human beings and they said, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. And I find that that humanism is noble and I want to descend that.
NEARY: By the end of the book, Groff's Bit has grown into a man who's more than capable of holding two ideas in his head at one time. He knows the commune where he was raised was tragically flawed, yet he's grateful for what it has given him.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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CORNISH: I'm Audie Cornish.
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