Lauren Groff ’01 has won acclaim for a stylish prose that is by turns lyrical and laconic, and for characters rendered with affectionate irony, their eccentricities kept in plain view. Her popular novels—including her 2015 National Book Award finalist Fates and Furies—are big, rambling fictions that follow families and communities over decades. So a reader is curious to see her operate on the smaller canvas of the short story.
Her new collection, Florida, is unified by its title, with most of its stories set in the Sunshine State. But Groff’s Florida is hardly sunny. Rather, it’s a place of dark seduction and threat: “a dense damp tangle,” she writes; “an Eden of dangerous things.” Storms and sinkholes; predator reptiles; things rotting, encroaching, inflicting harm: it’s a threat-o-rama put on by nature and humans alike, pervaded by “a sense of something lurking.”
Groff’s narrators and protagonists (she writes equally adeptly in first and third person) suffer a near-constant presentiment of malevolence. “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” depicts the lonely toils of a boy named Jude, living with his mother and herpetologist father at the edge of a large swamp, in a house full of snakes. “Dogs Go Wolf” follows two little girls, sisters left to starve on a tiny Florida key, and works backward from their predicament to its source in a mother’s selfish irresponsibility. “The Midnight Zone” puts us with a mom and her two young sons (a frequent configuration in this book) camping out in an isolated cabin, amid rumors of a panther on the loose. In “Above and Below,” a failed graduate student spirals into homelessness. In “Snake Stories,” the narrator tries unsuccessfully to help a girl who has been raped.
Groff is a lavish descriptive writer, frequently deploying the glittery word (“bedaubed”) or unexpected descriptive turn (“a Great Dane the color of dryer lint”), and focusing poetic attention on such unlikely objects as air conditioners (“crouched like trolls under the windows, their collective tuneless hum drowning out the night birds and frogs”).
Her prose demands attention, aspiring to be more than merely serviceable. Thus this description of the onset of a storm: “The lake goosebumped; I might have been looking at the sensitive flesh of an enormous lizard. The swing in the oak made larger arcs over the water. The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.” Groff depicts a storm so furious, figures appear as to Dorothy in her tornado-tossed house; amid the maelstrom, the narrator finds herself in conversation with a trio of ghosts.
Nature in these stories rarely fails to menace. Storms are cagey, powerful antagonists, wielding a will to punish. Humdrum domesticated animals become avatars of danger—like the chickens raised by the narrator of “Eyewall,” who flee to the crawlspace in advance of a storm, and remain “huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing.”
Storms are cagey antagonists. Humdrum animals become avatars of danger.
The humans in Florida are so tightly enclosed within their fears and failures that reading about them becomes claustrophobic. Groff’s characters often remain unnamed—“the girl,” “the mother”—as if at some level they are all one character, or at least one affliction, a besetting mix of isolation, anxiety and dread. Providing relatively little dialogue, Groff focuses instead on the interiority of things thought and felt and, most of all, feared. Rapists. Alligators. Lightning. Climate change. Divorce. “Mommy’s scared of everything,” a 6-year-old remarks in the final story, “Yport.”
That story takes place in France, where the novelist-protagonist has gone on vacation with her two young sons, ostensibly to pursue research about Guy de Maupassant, but really to evade what she thinks of as “her bad pet dread.” But the house she rents exudes “a fatty, rotting smell,” and is divebombed by seagulls, “their tongues darting out of their open mouths like long and pink and panicked worms.” Thus does a lovely stay in a quaint French village slide toward estrangement and disquiet. As the mother watches a gaggle of kids riding the carousel in the town, she experiences a bleak and ramifying pessimism, until finally, “She can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans.”
“Yport” discloses the pervasively anxious mindset that paints Groff’s narratives in such dark tones of gloom. These are stories about a dire state of being. It turns out that you can escape Florida, the place, but not the Florida inside of you.
Cooper is a contributing editor at Commonweal and writes a column, “In Our Midst,” for Hartford Magazine.