Lauren Groff’s last two books have been short-listed for the National Book Award. Her 2015 novel Fates and Furies, a detailed exploration of the different ways the two people in one marriage can understand their relationship, was on more “Best of Year” lists than any other book that year. In fact, it was President Obama’s favorite book of 2015 (remember when we waited for the president’s book list?).
Typically for Groff, the novel had more than one subject; it also dealt with questions of art and of how we make art in and out of our ordinary lives. As the title suggests, Groff is willing and able to sprinkle classical references throughout the book. She does so easily and unobtrusively.
The kind of reference in short story collection Florida is entirely different. Her lyrical prose style, often just up to the edge of poetic flourish before it pulls back into a rich and evocative space, is the same in both books. But here it turns to the natural world and our tenuous place in it.
Groff’s Florida is not the state of amusement parks and golf courses. Here the jungle waits just outside the suburban window or just on the other side of the manicured grass. There are things out there that want to eat us! In “Above and Below” a woman who has fallen past society’s safety nets stumbles outside the circle of campfire light and into the dark, where “insect noise [takes] on urgency” and the world is “unexpectedly teeming.” Things get more dangerous:
She thought of the snakes sleeping coiled in their burrows and the alligators surfacing to scent her in the darkness, their shimmy onto the land, their stealthy bellying; how she was only one living lost thing among so many others, not special for being human. Something crawled across her throat.
In “Yport,” a mother takes her two young sons to France hoping to do some research for a novel. But on the coast of Normandy she feels the same alienation she lives with back in Florida. Typically among Groff’s protagonists in these stories, she’s a woman on the cusp of middle age, only recently arrived in the middle class, and at least uncomfortable, if not desperate, in the situation of her life. In “Yport,” feeling the cold and excluded on the Normandy coast, she reflects:
She can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. Her sons have known only luck so far, though suffering will surely come for them. She feels it nearing, the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty, the last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness.
Yes, the paragraph reveals the soul of the character, but it also sounds a bit like prophecy.
Lauren Groff’s April 7 & 9 readings at UMMA have been cancelled, but at press time, Literati had copies of Florida in stock and available for pickup.