March 1, 2020 at 7:30 pm

CANCELED | Lit Fest | Lauren Groff Gives Reading, Lecture, March 19, 20

Lauren Groff , portrait

Lauren Groff

Note: This event has been canceled.

“We Need to Keep Around Us People Who Think and Speak”: Lauren Groff’s Thundering Florida

By Chase Campbell

Though the pages of Lauren Groff’s collection Florida are scored with the natural hazards indigenous to the Sunshine State, that “Eden of dangerous things,” these aren’t ever really what the excellent stories are about: even when Lauren Groff pits her characters against hurricanes, abundant reptiles, panthers, or sinkholes, her concerns—and the stories’ primary conflicts—are consistently psychological and human. In “Ghosts and Empties,” the collection’s opening story, a mother wanders her neighborhood at night to mitigate the potential domestic consequences of the fact that she has “somehow become a woman who yells.” These are the words that open the story, and they introduce both Florida’s most pervasive theme—the loss or lack of control—and the glowingly cynical, vaguely put-upon tone that makes Groff’s prose awfully funny and searingly painful.

As the mother walks, she observes her neighbors, some on their own nighttime walks, some through the “domestic aquariums” of their windows. She watches as a treadmill-bound boy goes from “tremendously fat” to a “slender man with pectoral rosebuds on his chest.” The juxtaposition is clear and poetic: the boy, running in place, changes, grows, transforms himself for the better through force of will; the mother, stalking the night, seems near-stagnant, powerless to control anything other than the direction in which she’s walking. And I suppose this is its own kind of power, but it’s not one that offers much comfort; by the end of the story the mother remains convinced that she and her husband will one day “look at each other crouching under the weight of all that [they] could not yell.”

That this mother yells, is allowed to yell, demands some note. Society burdens mothers with expectations of perfection, of unremitting patience and composure. Groff’s mothers are all wonderfully complex. It’s not that she celebrates the yelling, the wine amply drunk, the absence of the mother who in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” leaves her son because the boy’s stoic, snake-fixated father makes doing anything else unbearable; rather, Groff simply does the remarkably important work of allowing mothers to be flawed, to have limits and needs and worries—that is, basically, to be people.

Lauren Groff, who is celebrated for this carefully observed, three-dimensional characterization, will be one of five authors featured at Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival from March 18 to 20. She will speak on Thursday, March 19, and Friday, March 20. She’s the author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton (2008), Arcadia (2012), and Fates and Furies (2015); and the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds (2009). Groff has won the PEN/O. Henry Award and been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her stories have been featured in several editions of the Best American Short Stories. 2018’s Florida, her fifth book, won the Story Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Florida’s last and longest story, “Yport,” is one of the few set outside the borders of the eponymous state. It begins with a simple declarative sentence—“The mother decides to take her two young sons to France for August”—which also makes for a fairly adequate summary of the entire story, at least as far as major plot points are concerned; as is often the case in this collection, though, Groff isn’t especially interested in producing a traditional plot driven by a compounding series of clear causes and effects. Instead, “Yport” lets us linger in the turbulent mental ecosystem of its protagonist, an unnamed mother and novelist who appears elsewhere in the collection. Perhaps the biggest crisis occupying this mother’s mind is the burgeoning threat of climate change. “It disconcerts her to find that Paris has become somehow Floridian,” Groff writes, “all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts.” The mother’s climate anxiety—both wide-ranging and ultimately personal—makes the story feel urgent in the best possible way, as does her concern with a “world overrun by terrorists”; both feel like the too-often-unstated fears of parents living in the 21st century.

Groff’s economical and meticulously constructed sentences often communicate a great deal more than they might immediately appear to. When the mother in “Yport,” who’s ostensibly in France to write about Guy de Maupassant, takes her sons to visit the French author’s childhood home, we get this: “She takes the children to the villa Les Verguies, where, after their parents’ divorce, Guy and Hervé were raised by their suffering mother, but there is nothing to see there, and a great gate blocks the way.” Subtly relayed here are hints of the mother’s disillusionment with the whole ordeal of her vacation, her boredom with Guy de Maupassant as a subject, and an example of the mother’s recalcitrance about directly confronting her own personal issues—“there was nothing to see” in a home where “the suffering mother” of two sons lived. Delightfully clever sentences like these are as common in Florida as coral snakes and they make the collection infinitely re-readable. Groff is a writer who rewards our careful attention and we are certainly glad to welcome her to Ohio University.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *