Reviewed by Alison Buckholtz
For any universities out there are hoping to monetize the zeitgeist, here’s an idea for a brand-new discipline: the Department of Dread. Administrators can save on hiring costs by appointing the one person in America qualified to serve all the roles herself: chair, professor, adjunct, and student. She’s Lauren Groff, author of the new short story collection Florida, and she’s earned her Ph.D in Fear. Not the horror-movie kind, but the real-world-2018 kind that slithers up so gradually you don’t notice anything until it has wrapped itself around your chest and you can’t even breathe.
Speaking of snakes, all of the stories in this volume take place in Florida or feature characters whose Florida experience has shaped their destiny. But even in the tales that take place far from the Sunshine State, its climate—the weather, yes, but more significantly the moral and cultural environment—clings to each of the narrators like a shadow.
Florida’s first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” sets the tone that permeates the rest of the book. Like most of Groff’s narrators, the woman at the center of this piece is unnamed. But she’s so self-aware-bordering-on-paralyzingly-self-conscious that we have a clear sense of who she is from the first line: “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.” Every evening she leaves her two young sons to her husband, “a man who does not yell,” and walks—sometimes all night—through her “imperfectly safe” northern Florida town.
Lest we assume she’s metaphorically running from her problems, her nighttime observations serve only to deepen her sense that all is amiss. Even the “pleasant smell like campfires in the air” tip her off that “the old turpentine-pine forests that ring the city must be on fire,” and later she discovers it was even worse than she thought: “a controlled burn over the acres where dozens of the homeless have been living in a tent city.”
There’s almost no respite from the barrage of badness infiltrating this narrator’s inner news feed, or those of the characters featured in the stories that follow. But there’s also no sense that any of them are exaggerating, or making the world seem worse than it actually is. Their observations echo exactly what what we readers see in newspaper headlines about climate change or take in during a drive through an unevenly-gentrifying urban neighborhood.
It’s the effort it takes to push back—to integrate the daily horrors, rather than ignore them, and still find a way to go on raising a family and making a positive impact in the world—that leaves Groff’s characters battle-weary, isolated, and without a clear sense of how to navigate what’s next.
Not all of Florida’s pieces take place in the domestic sphere. In “Above and Beyond,” a grad student who has lost her funding, her boyfriend, and her apartment lives out of her car until it is vandalized. She then becomes part of a tent city and, even later, a friendly settlement of squatters. Although she’s a literature student (she reads Middlemarch during the long, hot days) she observers her new communities with an anthropologist’s eye, comparing the rules and mores and tracking her own place in them with a detachment that seems key to survival.
It’s precisely Groff’s characters’ detachment that leaves readers holding their collective breath throughout Florida—waiting for what’s to come, without even realizing it, until the final exhale. Groff’s women—more often than not they are women in their late thirties, with small children, and emotionally overburdened for reasons that aren’t entirely clear—seem incapable of making good decisions. Groff’s alchemy renders them sympathetic despite this. It’s a magical author formula much easier to state than to replicate: astute and relevant observation + wholly original description = sentences that ring with the clarity of truth.
Though most of Groff’s stories are as tethered to reality as her mothers are to their children, the winds of magical realism do blow through some of these pages. In “Eyewall,” for example, the narrator, a woman living alone in a large house on acres of waterfront property, chooses not to evacuate during a hurricane.
It turns out to be one of the bad ones. Groff captures the changing landscape for everyone who has lived through such a transformation. As the storm begins, “the lake goose-bumped; I might have been looking a the sensitive flesh of an enormous lizard. The swing in the oak made larger arcs over the water. The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.” Soon enough, the violence outside picks up, the lights go out, and “the house went sinister behind me, oppressive with its dark humidity.” That’s when her visitors come: her disloyal ex-husband, now dead; her father, long gone; the boy she loved in college, a suicide victim. She hadn’t understood any of them when she’d had the chance, but the chaos outside gifts her another opportunity to make sense of her past.
In a very broad sense, the earnest effort to make sense of a situation will be familiar to readers of Groff’s 2015 best-seller, Fates and Furies. But the standout stories in Florida thrum with urgency and a sense of shared fate—partnership, even, with the reader—whereas the novel seemed at its core a brilliantly executed literary exercise.
Despite the professional-level despair on exhibit throughout Florida, there’s comfort to be found in this sense of partnership between the author and reader. From within that comfort peeks a sliver of optimism–just enough to keep the students of modern-day dread coming back for more.
Groff, Lauren. Florida (Random House, 2018).
About the Author:
Lauren Groff is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize, and the LA Times Book Prize. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, along with five Best American Short Stories anthologies, and she was named one of Granta‘s 2017 Best Young American Novelists. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and sons.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.