Given that her most recent novel, Fates and Furies, was Barack Obama’s favourite book of 2018, Lauren Groff’s second collection of short stories, Florida, had a tough act to follow. This work steps confidently up to the plate, plunging us into a hot and humid world, where swamp creatures slither over the thresholds of human existence, and tensions drip from rain-soaked leaves. Groff’s world teeters between an uneasy present and a frightening future, where anxieties writhe over every surface and a silent fury gathers alongside summer storm clouds. This discomfiting vision of the Sunshine State is far from Cambridge’s bookish Easter term, making this collection the perfect escape from the strain of revision and exams.
Although Groff ranges over a wide variety of characters in her stories, there is one figure to which she seems to constantly return, a figure which spans all of her different spaces and timeframes. This ubiquitous character is the troubled wife and mother, whose calm exterior masks a raging, roiling fear: the fear of a world which creeps ever closer to its own destruction, while continuing to petrify her within the bounds of social expectations. In the first story of the collection, ‘Ghosts and Empties’, Groff presents us with one such woman, who has taken to roaming the night-time streets of her neighbourhood in an effort to quell the agitated discontent which racks her insides. She paces through the slowing evening, the dark flâneuse whom no one sees, watching while ‘window after window nears, freezes with its blue fog of television light or its couple hunched over a supper of pizza, holds as [she passes], then slides into the forgotten’. She walks into the turning year, from winter into spring, her footsteps trying to beat out the anger bubbling up inside her, the anger of all the mothers inside all the houses, ‘bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes, or the people they once were’. She walks in order to calm her terror over all the ‘disaster[s] of the world’ which are all over the news, and which surely foreshadow an imminent end. She walks, finally, off the page and back into the shadows, as we move onto another story, another moment, another voice.
Although we may let her fade from our vision as we work our way through the remaining stories, this woman and her worries seem to permeate the whole collection, spreading through the people and objects of each narrative with a disquieting urgency. The narrative is therefore imbued with a feeling of dread, as it returns again and again to its concerns over the state of the world, over the future of humanity. Groff writes beautifully of the ungovernable chaos of the natural world, of the ‘seethe of insects’, the ‘stealthy bellying of alligators’, the ‘shiver[ing]’ force of hurricane gales. Mother Nature seems to whip itself into the type of frenzy that must surely be surging towards disaster, and human lives are menaced by the insidious encroachment of snakes and lizards, water, wind and darkness. Accompanied by this building sense of foreboding, the reader is then struck, in the final story, ‘Yport’, with the line, ‘she can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans’, that we are nearing ‘the midnight of humanity’. This is an idea that we may normally dismiss out of hand for its melodrama, but Groff’s prose is so affecting, so visceral and immediate, that its fears begin to infect us as well, beginning to appear sensible, possible, even probable. In this way, she seems to reach into the murky underbelly of everyday life, unmasking its instability, its menace, its hopelessness, and giving voice to the global concerns which we would often prefer to ignore.
Dark, delicate and endlessly evocative, Florida is striking in its graceful creativity, and haunting in its piercing accuracy. It makes the place present: the rain, the heat, the air itself, evoking a sensuality very difficult to write convincingly. And along with the careful specificity of its sights and sensations, it has global relevance, offering us an image of the complex landscapes of today’s world. Fates and Furies may have been Obama’s book of 2018, but this has been my book of 2019 so far.