Notes on Lauren Groff’s Florida

(References to the paperback edition of Florida (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018)

Black vultures that smell ‘like a thousand rotten corpses’ have brought a Florida neighborhodd to its knees.” (Business Insider, August 17, 2019)

Florida by Lauren Groff is storytelling of such “vibrance”[a poetic word my WORD spell-checker underlines]–of vibrations [I guess that’s better] in the unsettling words and phrases and in the unsettled people who inhabit them and enact them.  Set in tropical temperatures and lush vegetation, a stifling abundance of palmettos and pointed bird-of-paradise plants, Florida’s stories seethe with swampy-ness and lurking dangers underfoot in undergrowth—mud-borne gars, bull alligators and snakes—even a panther among other strange feral beasts—outdoor creatures one would not want mooching and scrounging about in one’s house, no matter that the doors and windows have become unhinged from walls slightly splayed outwards.

              Lauren Groff is a young writer, a novelist since 2006, whose stories are worth the many well-phrased blurbs that journalists and critics have used to praise her impact upon the reader’s mind and feelings. The praise gushes:  “… a great storyteller,” one calls her; “Restorative fiction for these urgent times.” “… incomparable prose pulsates with peril,” another comments, unable to hold back from poetic onomatopoeic alliteration to describe a style made of both careful rhythms and musical sounds interwoven through the well-crafted sentences of delightful description. There’s a David Lynchian HiDef vividness to the imagery, “pulsing with hidden malevolence,” and the critic continues, “[E]ach story a glittering encrusted treasure hauled from the deep.”   Fact is, I have not read a set of advertising blurbs about a new work that ring as true, although sharp criticisms are unlikely to show up to advertise a new book.  The critics, everywhere I have looked, strive so precisely to praise and describe the writing, as do the score of critics’ notes that precede the unpaginated imprint pages of the paperback issue.

              Not everyone will find her writing delightful and polished, for there are enough depressed characters developed in the story events to make one or two readers wary of the darkness, the doom (ugh!) and the ill omens Groff presents. For my tastes, nothing seemed dreary about this collection of contemporary short stories by a truly gifted writer of prose composition. Granta (issue 139) named her as one of the best new American novelists on the scene in 2017.  Her novel Fates and Furies (2015) gave me indications of her success with a story in a large frame.

In Florida, do not expect happy, happy-go-lucky, jolly-happy characters, but the language describing people is electrical and scintillating, delving into psychic states of character with very “happy” choices of diction.  She offers plenty of information for psychological contemplation.  A world of accounts: of wives and husbands in troubled or stale relationships, parents tired out by their children, of children abandoned, single and married women on vacation, couples and families on vacation, of disenchanted young women longing for meaningful lives, whether in marriage or as a single.  These are moving stories of homelessness, the struggle to cope, of battling violent weathers, of dangers of libertine courtship and casual adultery, and of the ominous presence of sudden sinkholes in the roads or in the back yard; and the menace of animal life in their neighborhood habitats stalking through the warm asphalt streets in sultry Florida air, where people have invaded their rich, profuse fertile territory.  In almost every story there is a subtext, a subtle premonition of dread, often in thoughts of what is on the meteorological horizon or the green verge of footpaths. Some of the ghosts are ghosts, but many are the still living beings, barely visible people we chance to see in our own social groups. 

              Groff’s art is strikingly fresh, an exciting down-to-earth style of poetical, concise diction, phrasing that shies away from any hint of cliché, imagery and actions that make the reader at times feel a vouyeur.  Images and story can be unnerving, the reader too close to the gaping wounds people are suffering from.  The stories were written over decade’s time, which says something about diligence on a theme.

              Nothing disappointed me in her narratives.  I have listened to her reading her stories a dozen times. She adds in her voicing a special nuance to her words.  Her phrasing opens the reader’s eyes and ears, for there is an Orphic music to her words and rhythms. As modern myths, these stories are full of omens, to be overlooked only at one’s peril. One comes from Homer’s Iliad; another is just a dead raptor, a falcon that fell from the sky because it ate some poisoned cheese set for a rat. The raptor corpse did not burn well on the pyre of sticks meant to transform it phoenix-like.  A chicken’s unfurled wings stick up in an imprecation after a hurricane wind has passed through. Even a dead writer—the much-loved Guy de Maupassant—is given the stink-eye by a distressed novelist, coming to hate the author for his real-life scum-buggery.  [Don’t dislike the”Yport,” please, if Guy de Maupassant happens to be your favorite writer.]

Since I have asked members of our Club to comment on style or content of the stories I allocated, I thought it best in my introduction to explain or explicate a passage I found attractive and in my own way of preferences as exemplary and impressive.  We each will like or dislike her work for different reasons, depending on how we read and what we get out of her writing. I prefer to dig in, so to speak, and consider different aspects of style.  It’s what first struck me. What a consideration of a story can mean depends on how we think of “consideration.”  As a state of inquiring, con-sider is a special kind of looking; it has perhaps something to do with twinkling stars (Latin sidus, sideris “sidereal”) and so I consider her language and style as though inspecting constellations, looking for illuminations. I am looking for the sparks shining, what makes my mind spark, what scintillates, what makes my mind scintillate. (Latin scintilla “spark, glimmer.”)  Perhaps I look at words in ways to make them part of nature.  A lot of Groff’s best descriptive writing I found to be nature oriented. You can understand how fanciful my mind is at times by what follows.

A Couple of Passages from Florida I Found Worthy of Study

              Many great writers have been noticed and remembered for their first sentences or paragraphs.  You can think of a couple for sure. Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many wiles; It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; Mama died today; It was a pleasure to burn; Once upon a time and a very good time it was, a moocow came down the road; Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Stuff like that. No end to them. I thought of Hemingway to consider another great stylist of a century ago.  In the opening of the first vignette or introduction, “On the Quai at Smyrna” from In Our Time (1930) which was one of our library Summer Reading selections of many years ago, Hemingway used anaphora (repetition) in the word scream, they started screaming and at midnight:

“The worst thing was … how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they started screaming. We were in the harbor and they were on the pier and at midnight they started screaming.

Excited feelings of Lauren Groff’s artistic imagination came upon me with my first reading of her opening paragraphs. The anaphora, the verse rhythms, the emphases.  From the first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” these sentences, these paragraphs, are remarkable to me.  They offer a glimpse of the rhythmic actions and aroused senses that abound—even bound—throughout her writing:

Paragraph 1.     “I have somehow become a woman who yells and because I don’t want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.

Paragraph 2.     “The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead.  The only other illumination is from the windows in the houses I pass and the moon that orders me to look up, look up! Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.” (p. 1)

Paragraph one: Groff doesn’t worry about the long composition of her opening passage, no fearing it will tax the reader’s breath or imaginative patience, because the pace of her phrases carries one along in a pitter-patter of comfy shoes, “. . . A woman who yells … a woman who yells . . .” ring like a rhyming bell and the music finishes at paragraphs end with an anaphoric “dong”—“. . . a man who does not yell.” Her shoes she’s lacing on are shoes for running after dinner and going out into twilit streets, then comes the rhythmic ing-rhyming copulatives of “undressing,” “and sluicing,” “and reading,” “and singing,” and “and tucking in” echoing behind her as she sets out, leaving the chores for the taciturn husband to manage.  One can’t help but see those clauses and phrases as poetry on the page, and in a slow, clear reading out loud, paced in a steady languid rhythm, it is easily heard as music.

[The verse form in the series above is known as amphibrachic: the short-long-short of ŭn-drēss-ĭng and the phrases that follow it, for example. We are mostly aware of limping iambic rhythms, short-long, as in “a mán / who dóes/ not yéll.” Others are spondaic, “gray twilight grown quite black,” and trochaic and anapestic, but you might not care what they look like in prose. Groff mentions in her talks how poetry was a first love of hers.  Verse rhythms are, nevertheless, very important in prose to enhance cadence, and to emphasize the sense and content.  Explicating verse was a specialty study of mine in reading ancient Greek and Roman poetry.  Through habit, a quirk of mine, therefore, I tend to consider the stylistic rhythms in good prose styles.] 

Paragraph two:  A couple of neighborhoods are out in the streets, “a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.” Atop: I had almost forgotten the poetic preposition atop was still useful, so little used in prose but so precise and concise for the long on top of.  And animatedly the neighborhood “unrolls” like a carpet as one walks along, a covering that has lain coiled up like a mattress or sleeping bag.  For fun, the walker watches her changeable shadow frolic under sequences of streetlights (no nostalgia of streetlamps here): it “lags,” “gallops,” and “gambols.” Again, the latter sequence is rhythmic and musical.  In the latter two movements, the gait of animals takes the shadow on a run.  Other lighting from the windows make picture frames and the moon—what stage of shape or brilliance?—orders another kind of looking, looking up.  It’s insistent.  Then the skittering life under foot is wild and quick as darts; waist-high sharp-leaved exotic, beaked flowers come poking from dark places.  Imagination runs riot.  Things seen are one thing, but smells are powerful exhalations: from dusty matter, slimy gooey growth, and fragrant leaves of camphor bushes. Movement, music, sights and smells.  She presents a night-time sensorium in a Florida town.

The profusion, it makes one think what the woman’s problem is.  She takes everything inside and it’s just too much: “It’s too much, it’s too much, I shout at my husband some nights when I come home….”(p. 7) What is it that makes the woman want to yell?  The too-muchness of what? Are her children afraid in their frozen, watchful expressions of their mother’s yelling, her freaking out? The people in front of her as she walks she describes as ghostly specters: the long, thin, erect woman with her elegant Great Dane, the couple who—surprised—turn and “owl” her; the homeless woman muttering to herself.  The people she views in the lit window frames—the fat youth on the running-machine, the therapist in the antique Victorian house, ailing from his shotgun wound, sitting alone at his table, the close friend in her pink leotard, no, not a leotard, her body merely pinked from a hot shower—are like animals in illuminated cages. What is the shadowed man “hissing nasties” actually hissing?  Is it “Slut!” or “saucy bitch!” something that makes her bridle with disdain and put on her “don’t-fuck-with-me face”?  Sexual moments, seeking and testing the erotic nature, are not unusual in her writing. The-woman-who-yells notices and takes in everything. She wants to get back at the sinister hissing man, too, to “use what’s building up.” The husband who does not yell is communicating with someone different from his wife: “I flipped open his computer and saw what I saw there, a conversation not meant for me, a snip of flesh that was not his….” (p. 8) Does concealing this secret glimpse also make her want to let out a fierce yell? She calls her husband “this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much….”(p. 14)  Is she afraid he is leaving or will leave her?  The outer world she fears is changing for the worst: “I can’t stop thinking about the disaster of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.” (p.7) She reads and savagely mourns: this fueling of her grief, is this why she yells?  Thinking about what this woman is taking in, all these details fuel my interest and make me want to study the flood of images. 

Just as she began “Ghosts and Empties” with images repeating, she closes the story with the “yell,” “shadow” and “the moon” she mentioned in paragraph two; the moon like a cartoon has a laughing face.  But the moon has no time to be laughing at silly ghostly people crawling upon the earth, “we lonely humans, who are far too small and our lives too fleeting for it to give any notice at all.” (p. 14)       

More I could write, but I really don’t know how to say enough, explaining how much I enjoy the language in these stories.  I must seem fey and giddy writing explication in this manner.  Whatever “transgender” really means in artistic terms, I can say I have crossed through the hedge to Groff’s side of seeing for a while. Nothing wrong with a dose of enchantment from literature these days.  In “Ghosts and Empties,” it’s a woman’s persona I strive to put on (the mask—viz. persona) or inhabit for a period of imagining and perceiving.  Playing Jude will be the easiest mask to adopt, or Grant and Manfred, but it’s good to crawl into the hearts and minds of the diverse women characters portrayed in Groff’s stories. There’s much of interest to find in studying them.  Consider “Yport” (p. 215-275) for a complex character study, a mother on vacation in France with her two boys. It’s Groff, the novelist, writing about a novelist purportedly studying a writer of another era. There are sinkholes everywhere.

A Favorite Quote:

From “Above and Below,” (p. 171-203) about the homeless college girl on her coping as one who chose to lose:

“The buildings on the town square looked old like Florida—the tall porches with fans, the tin roofs—but everything was made of a dense plastic in shades of beige. There was a fountain in the center: a squat frog spitting up water and change scattered on the blue tiles under the water.  She sat on the edge of the fountain and watched the shoppers in the boutiques and the people eating ice cream cones.”(p.176)

. . . .

“She sat like a second frog on the edge of the fountain, hunched over her hunger, until the clock clicked to an impossible late hour and she was alone.  She rolled up her jeans and stepped into the water. She felt along the bottom with her feet until she came upon a coin, and dipped her arm up to her shoulder, but almost all the change was glued to the tile.  By the time she had gone entirely around, she had gathered only a small handful.  When she peered at the coins in the dim light from the streetlamp, she found they were mostly pennies.  Still, she went around again.  She saw herself from a great distance, a woman stooping in knee-deep water for someone else’s wishes.” (p. 177)

Why did I choose this passage?  Perhaps I like frogs.  Anyway, take it in as verse and scan the metrical forms.  Try it.

David Gilmour (December 5, 2019)

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