A recurring character binds the eleven stories in Lauren Groff’s Florida. Sometimes she is narrator and protagonist. Some of the stories never mention her— she simply waits under the surface, her own neuroses radiating across the book, the force that spurs each narrative. Like Groff, this woman is writer with two young sons, and a transplant from the North living in Florida— a place that terrifies her because its hot, heavy sameness reminds her of her own weighty and constant dread. She narrates, with disarming precision, her various attempts at escape from “something heavy on her heart.” In “Ghosts and Empties,” the collection’s opener, she goes on panicked runs through her tropical neighborhood and watches her neighbors go about their business in place of anxiously watching her children. In “Yport,” the “something heavy” sends her fleeing to chilly coastal France, where she realizes her one of her sons has inherited her own existential dread.
Groff never lets this lurking dread make the stories heavy. Instead, fear fuels movement. The stories shine with a desperate drive to describe, as if survival depends on it. In “The Midnight Zone,” the recurring mother-character ends up stranded in a rural-Florida cabin with only her two children. She falls screwing in a lightbulb and badly injures herself. “The older boy bent over me, then lifted an intact lightbulb from my armpit triumphantly; I a chicken, the bulb an egg.” Groff’s gifts, on display here, are fundamentally sentence-level. With a cleverly-crafted phrase she invokes both the dread and its inherent possibility for redemption, the metaphor itself a sign that through linguistic alchemy, helplessness can become something new.
About half of the story’s collections flee so far from this dread that they take us to new people, even new countries. In “Salvador,” a young woman takes a break from nursing her sick mother in Florida to visit Brazil, where she revels in and fears her sexual freedom in in equal measure. In Above and Below, a woman becomes homeless when her academic aspirations go south, and her unwillingness to seek help from her mother laps at the edges of her downward spiral. Still, the mother of two, running from her dread, never leaves us. Sandwiched between her recounted attempts at escape, these other fleeing characters seem manifestations of an identical drive, as if the mother has created them the way she creates mental images of the men her sons might become. And of course in a sense she has, to the extent that this character is both a mother and a writer, constantly generating potential worlds.
Florida’s most heartrending and memorable story, “Dogs Go Woof,” describes two young sisters abandoned on an island. Here the older sister, in her childish way, adopts the mother’s role. She foresees the possibility of their starvation, finds solutions to it, and tells stories to stave off her sister’s fear. Yet Groff, in bringing these children to the point of hopelessness, gives them a moment of peace: “these beautiful soft days” in which they have only each other. In each of these stories, which blaze with introspection turned outward, Groff lowers her characters into a place beyond dread, a place where nightmares have come true and thus there is no more to fear. Redemption comes, not in being saved, but in the moment before the salvation.
By Eleanor Stern