For the past couple of years I’ve been reading lots of short story collections by living American writers, looking for something that sparks with creativity, not often finding much. Lauren Groff is generally accepted as one of the prime divas of the MFA world of writing. The stories in this new collection, “Florida” (Riverhead Books, 2018), have been previously published in some of the premier venues in the U.S.: The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Granta, Tin House, among others. They have been featured as well in three different anthologies of Best American Short Stories. Does that mean they are good? Alas, owing to the stranglehold that the standard MFA racket in fiction holds on these once-august publications, I’ve learned not to get my expectations up too high.
Given the title of Lauren Groff’s collection it is not surprising that most of the stories here are set in Florida; even when we take a leap in setting to France—for two of them—the characters still have Florida connections. Lauren Groff herself lives in Gainesville, Florida, along with her husband and two young sons. So it is also not surprising that five of the eleven stories feature a narrator living in Gainesville with a husband and two young sons. The best of these is probably the first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which begins like this.
“I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not 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.”
Here we have what you could call the inadequate mother theme, which shows up several more times in other stories. In addition, four central characters make their first appearance: the ideal husband and the neurotic woman narrator, the two sons, all of whom show up again in “The Midnight Zone,” “Flower Hunters,” “Snake Stories,” and “Yport.”
On the first page of the book we note that the author has a good feel for the sights and smells of Florida, the “oak dust, slime mold, camphor,” along with the Deep South, “with its boiled peanuts and its Spanish moss dangling like armpit hair.” Full disclosure: I too live in Gainesville, Florida, and I appreciate the detailed description in “Ghosts and Empties” of what and whom you’ll see walking any night down by the Duck Pond.
Unlike myself, a native Floridian, Lauren Groff, is a Yankee interloper, and that sometimes gets her in trouble with the locals. Recently one of them sent a long plaint to the Gainesville Sun, arguing that someone not a native does not have the right to be so negative about things like Spanish moss (armpit hair). Then again, describing Spanish moss metaphorically is fully as difficult as describing the hirundine joy of swallows in flight; I know of no author who has accomplished such description with panache, and lots of them have tried. Spanish moss, it appears, is not akin, not comparable to anything else: Spanish moss just is.
“Florida in the summer is a slow hot drowning” (“Yport”), and throughout the whole collection much is made of the dank, humid, mephitic air. In fact, a better title would be The Florida Malaise, or Fear and Loathing in the Sunshine State. Out on her evening walks, amidst “the human flotsam of the homeless in sleeping bags,” and everywhere else as well, the neurotic narrator senses danger in the air. She even craves anxiety, wallows in bad vibrations:
“I can’t stop reading 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. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it.”
As Yogi Berra once remarked, “Being scared can be really scary,” and being scared is a leitmotif of this story collection. There is beauty all around, “camellias and peach trees and dogwoods and oranges,” but beauty is not enough to outshine the malaise. Luckily, Groff can write well, and the grace of her sentences—while apparently of little comfort to the overwrought narrator—sometimes helps the reader cope with the scariness of our world.
Mothers: “I see the mothers I know in glimpses, bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were, slumped in the corners.” I don’t much like the simile of the shepherdess crooks (seems forced, doesn’t work), but the thing of people looking around for their former selves, only to find them slumped in corners, is good. Air conditioners: “Soon they’ll all be on, crouched like trolls under the windows, their collective tuneless hum drowning out the night birds and frogs . . .” Window units as wheezing trolls: that’s great.
More on the stories featuring the neurotic woman narrator, a writer, with the two sons and the ideal husband. As we learn in “The Midnight Zone,” this narrator worships at the shrine of Feminism, which has been the religion of middle-class muliebrity in America since the 1970s. Here the narrator reveals that she is “an incompetent woman” interested only in her books and her children, but she refuses the accepted motherly role: “all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting. I would not buy clothes, I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules . . . Motherhood meant for me that I would take the boys on monthlong adventures to Europe.”
This last detail reveals that this is the same narrator we are to meet in “Yport,” a story describing one of these European jaunts, in which a neurotic writer goes to France—ostensibly to do research on Guy de Maupassant, an author she hates. Overcome by a sense of dread, a malaise she had hoped to escape—but when you travel your tsuris goes with you—she does nothing in France but drink large quantities of wine. Wishing they were back home, but patient, touchingly tolerant of Mom, the boys indulge her whims. Obviously, here is where they take after ideal husband Dad.
“The Midnight Zone” is centered upon the narrator’s fear of being attacked by a Florida panther—a picture of which (minus the snout) is featured on the dust jacket of the book. While the family is spending time at an old hunting camp in the woods, the narrator’s husband is called away, but she refuses to go with him. “My rebelliousness at the time was like a sticky fog rolling through my body and never burning off.” She stays with the boys in the woods, “she who is frightened of everything” (“The Flower Hunters”), nursing her irrational fears of the panther: “if anyone was going to die it was going to be us, our skulls popping in the jaws of an endangered cat.”
It is here that the reader begins to realize—if he has not realized earlier—that the Florida malaise in this story collection is largely the malaise of the neurotic narrator projected out into the Florida air. After all, the last attack of an endangered Florida panther on a human being dates so far back into history that it resides in some Never-Never Land.
What is the problem with having five of the eleven stories featuring this same anxiety-ridden narrator? The problem is that the reader gets tired of her. Okay, so writers of fiction are fearful, neurotic creatures. We all know that. Throughout the twentieth century we have been inundated with angst-ridden stories written by angst-ridden narrators; now it’s a new century, even a new millennium—why not give us a break?
The fact that a writer has her anxieties should not be surprising, and is not surprising in this book as well. But a canny writer should know that presenting this image to the world at large, in your fiction, can get old fast. With me this happens as early as late in the first story.
The ownself-obsessed narrator goes in a drugstore to buy Epsom salts: “into this abundance with its aisles of gaudy trash and useless wrapping and plastic pull tabs that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle. I find myself limping, and the limp morphs into a kind of pained bopping because the music dredges up elementary school, when my parents were, astonishingly, younger than I am now, and that one long summer they listened on repeat to Paul Simon singing over springy African drums about a trip with a son, the human trampoline, the window in the heart. It is both too much and too little, and I leave without the salts because I am not ready for such easy absolution as this. I can’t.”
At this point, the phrase “easy absolution” somehow is the last straw. I have already had too much of this narrator, fearing the very air she walks in, deprecating a world in which “nothing is not always in transition.” Meanwhile, we presume, ideal husband is back home feeding the kids and getting them in bed. In “Flower Hunters” the narrator, “exhausting to everyone,” loses her best friend Meg. Meg needs a break from her, this “woman who would like to take a break from herself, but she doesn’t have that option.” That’s it exactly: very early on I, too, need a break from this character.
Probably the most interesting thing about the five stories featuring the neurotic narrator is the husband of the tale. We never get a good look at him; for the most part he is always pottering around somewhere in the background. But there are implications that the ideal husband has flaws. In the very first story the narrator returns from a walk. Her husband is in the bathroom, “and 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.” Later on (in “Snake Stories”) we learn that the husband, this “almost entirely good person,” is attracted to another man’s wife. This same story describes “terrible things happening in the world at large, marriages ending, either in a sort of quiet drifting away or in flames.”
Citations from “Flower Hunters”: “This is not to say that she is no longer in love with her husband; she is, but after sixteen years together, perhaps they have blurred at the edges of each other’s vision. . . . One day you’ll wake up and realize your favorite person has turned into a cloud.” A few pages later in the same story: “She is frightened because maybe she has already become so cloudy to her husband that he has begun to look right through her; she’s frightened of what he sees on the other side.” Taken as a whole, therefore, if you read all five stories featuring the narrator writer, the husband and two sons, the implication is definitely there: divorce is looming on the horizon.
For reasons expressed above, for me the best stories in the collection are not the five just discussed. “Dogs Go Wolf” tells of two little girls abandoned on a deserted island off the Florida coast, left to fend for themselves and doing well at the fending. The story is well-written, well structured. It has a beginning, middle and end, as does another fine tale, “For the God of Love, For the Love of God.” This one features characters set adrift in France, most of them barely hanging on to a semblance of sanity, while the two youngest of them, a four-year-old boy and a girl of twenty-one, exult in being alive and planning for their future.
Here’s the girl, in the concluding paragraph:
“This sky huge with stars. Glorious, Mina thought, as she walked toward them. The cold in the air, the smell of cherries wafting up from the trees, the veal and endives cooking in the kitchen, the pool with its own moon, the stone house, the vines, the country full of velvet-eyed Frenchmen. Even the flicks of candlelight on those angry faces at the table was romantic. Everything was beautiful. Anything was possible. The whole world had been split open like a peach. And these poor people, these poor fucking people. Were they too old to see it? All they had to do was reach out and pluck it and raise it to their lips, and they would taste it, too.”
Here’s the boy: “Leo bit carefully into his toast and Nutella, watching Amanda. She’d never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age.”
There’s three nice sentences for you, the meditation on beadiness. Here are some more. “The camphor and magnolia and crape myrtles pressed their crowns to the earth, backbending, acrobats. My teak picnic table galumphed itself toward the road, chasing after the chairs already fled that way” (from “Eyewall,” a story describing riding out a hurricane). “In the absence of tiny ghouls [on Halloween], the lizards come out one last time, frilling their red necks, doing push-ups on the sidewalk” (“Flower Hunters”). Walk the streets of Gainesville on a hot spring or summer’s day; you’ll see the lizards out there doing that frilling. Why? I presumed because insects are attracted to the little reddish-pink or orange balloon that the anoles puff out from their scrawny little necks. I was wrong. The internet tells me that male anole lizards do the puffing thing in mating season, to attract females. Along with the puffout they perform a mating dance in miniature, which sometimes includes what looks like push-ups. Nice observation, Lauren Groff.
Speaking of well-structured stories, having read a great many American short stories by living writers in the past couple of years, I find that the MFA rules-makers—most of them profs in creative writing courses at universities—seem to be giving writers a pass these days. Apparently, it is okay to write long rambling stories, which meander on for a lot of pages—doing without much of a beginning, a middle, an end, a climax, a denouement. In Groff’s collection such stories are “Above and Below,” and “Yport.”
Especially offensive to a reader who craves artistic structure is another of these, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” Over the course of twenty-eight pages this story meanders through the life of a Florida man named Jude. In other words, what we have here is a kind of short novel, masquerading as a story. Drifting along through a world of snakes, tormented by memories of his herpetologist father, Jude never really gets anywhere, but in the last line of the story he “knew he had been lucky, and that he had escaped the hungry dark once more.” Okay.
Sometimes, still speaking structurally, the stories take long leaps forward into the future, before returning to tell out the present time. In “Above and Below,” another meandering narrative about a young middleclass woman who drifts into homelessness and vagabondage, the ending of the tale leaps ahead, to a scene of the protagonist looking back on her homeless life, “during the long and terrible birth of her daughter, years later, after her mother’s funeral on a hill white with sleet.” The story transports the reader briefly forward to the white-sleeted hill, then ends with a description of the birth while looking back. The stylistic acrobatics here make for an interesting structure. You write a story of a character’s lost days of wandering, then jump ahead far into the future, only to focus on how the protagonist of the future looks back on the events of the present-time story.
In the middle of “Dogs Go Wolf,” the story of the two little girls abandoned on an island, we suddenly get this:
“Through the years to come, she’d remember these days of calm. She’d hold these beautiful soft days in her as the years slowly moved from terrible to bearable to better, and she would feel herself growing, sharpening. She’d learn the language of men and use it against them: she’d become a lawyer . . . . . . the little sister met a man who first gave her love, then withdrew it until she believed the things he believed. He made her give up her last name, which the older sister had fought their whole childhood to keep, though their third foster parents had wanted to adopt them, because it was the only thing they had of their mother. And then one day the older sister stood in the pews and watched her baby sister get married to this man. She wore a white dress with a skirt so giant she could barely walk, and bound herself to that man. The older sister watched and started to shake. She cried. An ugly wish spread in her like ink in water: that she and her sister had stayed on the island all those years ago; that they’d slowly vanished into their hunger until they turned into sunlight and dust.”
What we have here is a touch of what happens all the way through the story of Jude: a short story attempting, in one fell swoop, to make a novella of itself. The basic story tells of the two lost girls on the island, but, suddenly, new scenes swoop in—scenes that have no part in the story being told. Scenes describing years of the girls’ future lives with foster parents, scenes describing law school for the first sister and marriage (apparently unhappy) for the second sister. As in “Above and Below,” we have the narrative device of placing a protagonist far into the future, then showing that protagonist’s look back into the present time of the story.
One more thing that this leaping ahead business does for the reader: it assures him/her that the present predicament of the characters will be overcome. The lost little girls on the island will not die there; they will be found, and will go on to lead long lives. This is a kind of reassurance in advance; the story ends when they are rescued, but at the time of the leap forward their rescue is not guaranteed. The lost protagonist wandering homeless around Gainesville, she who has given up on middleclass respectability, will some day return to the middleclass life, bury her mother, have a baby.
So I suppose that the device, among other things, is the author’s take on a happy ending. Go down to Satchell’s Pizza tonight. Sit around and have a beer. You’ll see that same once-lost protagonist sitting there, with her daughter, exulting in the mildew, the smells of camphor, the beggar lice on her shoelaces, the lugubrious coos of the mourning doves and the thick, mephitic Florida air.
A few observations by the way: (1) five to six months out of the year is monsoon season in Gainesville; yet Groff’s stories are, largely, rainless; (2) to me the most mournful sound in the Florida air, on a searing summer’s day, is the coo of a mourning dove; yet Groff has no doves in her stories; (3) she does get in one mention of satsumas, though, and that’s great. What would North and Central Florida be without satsumas?
U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence: Short Stories