February 8, 2019KR Reviews

Florida Projects

Florida. Lauren Groff. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2018. 288 pages. $27.00.

Florida. Christine Schutt. Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books, 2004. 152 pages. $22.95.

What is a Florida book? A Florida room is the glass wing of a usual house. The Florida torreya, a yew fetidly foliated. Attributively, “Florida” origins oranges and mosses, woods and waters. (From an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue: “Florida Water is either used as a perfume . . . or as a lotion.”) A proper noun bonded to place, its usage predates statehood by only five years.

Prior? “Florid” comes “directly through” the French floride, born in 1638, seventy years after the Huguenots crossed the Atlantic, fleeing persecution in Europe. Their first go failed (France antartique, in Brazil); so did their second, an attempt to colonize the southern US: Floride françoise.

At such a plan, denizens in Lauren Groff’s Florida, her new collection of short fiction, would shudder, especially the narrator of the final story “Yport”: “There has been something heavy on her heart that she was hoping to remove by running away to France.” Florida as salvation? A thought as preposterous as the fountain of youth.

Groff’s characters are reluctant Sunshine Staters, bound to the southernmost-tip of a divided country by family circumstance or domestic calamity. Florida breeds danger and failure, Groff suggests; it demolishes its own: consider the protagonist of “At Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” who finds himself “Isolated. Sunbattered. Old.”

Especially vulnerable are children (see island-stranded girls in the dreamy, fairy-tale “Dogs Go Wolf”) and animals: snakes, birds, panthers losing their habitats. But no life is more tenuous than the mother’s. In the wake of tragedies in Parkland and Orlando, Groff’s Florida gives voice to the fears, anxieties, and conflicts of maternalism in the sun-addled, menace of contemporary America. Mothers abound in Groff’s Florida, and they’re always being chewed up and spit out. They have nameable enemies (sugar, screens) and nameless malaise. They are losing weight, vanishing in plain sight. They are wining themselves into oblivion (Groff hies many into Lost Weekend territory). They are residents of manifold traps, perhaps because of an overpowering store of maternal love.

If there is a Florida cage, for Groff’s characters it is heartwood. In “Yport,” a mother travels France with her two children (to research Guy de Maupassant and avoid Florida summer), only to discover she “doesn’t belong in France, perhaps she never did; she was always simply her flawed and neurotic self, even in French. Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida.”

“Flawed and neurotic” might describe any of Groff’s narrators in Florida. At times the profile feels redundant, too insistently irresponsible. In “The Midnight Zone,” for instance, a flawed and neurotic mother—alone with two young children while a wildcat is on the loose and her husband is away—falls, busts open her head, and tries not to succumb to concussive symptoms. The family’s dilemma (“things had been fraying in our hands”) parallels a brewing storm and wildcat sighting, all the more precipitous in light of the mother’s admitted “flaws”:

For years at a time I was good only at the things that interested me, and since all that interested me was my books and my children, the rest of life had sort of inched away. And while it’s true that my children were endlessly fascinating, two petri dishes growing human cultures, being a mother never had been, and all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting. . . .

Such self-analysis occurs in stories told in first- and third-person point of view, and I found myself hurrying through the passages, despite Groff’s always-good writing. She is at her best in Florida when her narrators turn their attention to the world around them, be it phantasm (as in “Eyewall”) or the Floridian fecundity of “Ghosts and Change,” where “feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows . . . oak dust, slime mold, camphor.”

It would be wrong to cast the collection’s mood as one of fright or terror. The theme Groff explores most compellingly is one of self-negation, the transcendence of physical erosion. Transformation is hope in Florida—”gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it,” observes the narrator of a young man’s weight loss that she’s been chronicling (minor scopophilia) in “Ghosts and Change.” In “Above and Below,” the narrator, a nameless grad student (“the girl”) courting eviction, decides to live first in her station wagon and, ultimately, on the street. Nowhere does a writer make self-abnegation more beautiful: “Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.”

Is transcendence the ultimate prize for fictional Floridians? Reading Groff invited me to reread another Florida, Christine Schutt’s first novel. In this Künstlerroman, a young woman named Alice Fivey recounts her runabout upbringing, one haunted by the comings and goings of an unstable mother, one that never occurs in the titular state.

Because of this, Schutt’s Florida is almost foreign. Published pre-Housing Crisis, pre-Pulse Nightclub, pre-Trump, pre-Parkland, America is not the antagonist: America offers options: “In Florida . . . it was good health all the time,” Schutt writes. “No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard.”

For the Fivey family, the word Florida itself transforms into part of a private idiolect. “Florida” is a Shangri-La: “Mother promised that in our Florida, hers and mine, we could get a bird.” It’s also a sanatorium—and a sunbed, lined with aluminum foil: the “Florida box.” The family is “caught up in our Florida.”

Is it the swamps, the sinkholes, the sand? Being enthralled by the cipher of Florida, like Alice’s mother, isn’t so different from being entrapped by the false Gods of academia, like Groff’’s girl in “Above and Below”: “There was a Baudelaire poem  . . .  but it had been erased from her memory . . . the sun was bleaching it all to dust; her hunger was eating it up . . . If pretty words couldn’t save her, then losing them, too, was all for the best.”

Pretty words—Florid(a) words?

As William Makepeace Thackeray wrote in The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, “A florid apparel becomes some men, as simple raiment suits others.” And so if Florida has given a muse’s wardrobe to Schutt and Groff, it is certainly a most florid apparel. Both writers mete out luxury—Schutt’s short chapters, Groff’s quick paragraphs (“Flower Hunters”)—but such gestures amount to costuming Audrey Hepburn in her bookworm garb before that red column of chiffon in Funny Face. What can’t Schutt and Groff do with sentences? They use classical rhetoric (witness Groff anaphora-ing “because” to drive the whole narrative of “Ghosts and Empties”) or figurative language (Schutt’s “light as cinder”), let readers marvel at the mundane (Schutt: “Their bodies, plump commas, are slumped in easy chairs”), or recognize the wild (Groff: “the lizards come out . . . frilling their red necks, doing push-ups on the sidewalk”).

• •

“I was drawn back to Florida in part because there were aspects of the state that I wanted to square with my own history,” Sarah Gerard, author of Sunshine State told me. I wanted an answer from someone who’d written about this place. “The state had shaped my ideas about achievement, class, the natural world, religion, and in other ways that I wanted to physically retrace.”

In Florida, Lauren Groff illustrates how wholly setting can impress itself upon characters—and how agile a brilliant writer can be. “I can live anywhere easily—have done,” Alice insists in Schutt’s novel, and more than anything, this is what Groff’s collection says.

JoAnna Novak
JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You and the book-length poem Noirmania. Her work has appeared in publications including the Paris Review, New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Guernica, and BOMB. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.