Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tournament of Books: First Contest

Arcadia vs The Orchardist

Arcadia and The Orchardist have certain things in common. Both are stories of American history. Each focuses on a dramatic historical movement. The Orchardist is about pioneers settling the west, in this case the far western United States. Arcadia represents the twilight of the Utopian movement that started in the nineteenth century, and besides a few exceptions like the Amish, ended in the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s where Arcadia is set. 

 Both novels are organized around one main protagonist. Arcadia is tightly bound to Bit Stone, the first child born in Arcadia. Arcadia is seen only through Bit's point of view. The Orchardist centers its narrative around  the orchard keeper William Talmadge but moves among other viewpoints, most notably that of Della Michaelson, a teen-aged foundling who settles on Talmadge's property, and her niece Angelene, Talmadge's foster daughter.

The Orchardist follows Talmadge from childhood, when his restless mother drags him and his sister to a patch of land in Washington state and begins to cultivate the land. Talmadge grows up to become the orchardist, never leaving his land which he has made into a productive fruit farm. His life and his love is the orchard until two pregnant teen-aged sisters, runaways from an abusive brothel-keeper, find shelter with him.

The characters in The Orchardist are larger than life. Talmadge seems almost a force of nature, especially as described in the novel's opening: "His face was as pitted as the moon...(h)is ears were elephantine...the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit." (Is this passage overwritten? Yes, especially in the clipped, portentous tone.) The other main characters are similarly huge. Talmadge's Nez Pearce friend, Clee and his neighbor Caroline, who helps him with the sisters, are all wisdom and kindness; Della is monumentally damaged by her abusive childhood, and her abuser, Michaelson, is monumentally evil. Other characters, like Jane, Della's sister, figure importantly into the story, but are barely sketched in.

Yet despite this imbalance and stiffness there remains something compelling in the story of the American west, a romance that never wears thin. So in the intensity and bigness of this book, first-time novelist Amanda Copin has contributed something to our communal story.

At first glance Lauren Groff's Arcadia seems overwritten too. But you come to see that the tone reflects the overheated and naive world view of the Arcadians themselves. "May they rot in their bourgeois capitalist hell" says Bit's mother, Hannah. Bit imagines the world outside of Arcadia: "Humans out there are grotesque: Scrooges and Jellybys and filthy orphans... a blight called television like tiny Plato's caves in every room."  Groff turns out to be a skillful writer, letting us see the overview of Arcadia's life span as a community at the same time as she brings all of the characters and details to life. The pleasure of reading Arcadia is in Bit's close observations of himself and his world, given words lacking to the child  by the Bit-omniscient narrator. The narrator's interpretation of Bit's consciousness is convincing.

The plot of Arcadia follows the birth and death of the commune. At first everyone, including Bit's parents Hannah and Abe, embrace the communal ideal under Handy, the charismatic leader of Arcadia. Gradually, over the course of Bit's growing up, things unravel, drugs suck up a lot of energy, and rebellious newbies make a mess. We leave Bit at the commune in his teens and, in the last sections of the novel we pick up and follow him as an adult as he adjusts to life outside and reconciles with the remnant of the commune that he carries with him. The very last section takes place in the near future when a flu-like epidemic has taken over the United States. Perhaps this goes on too long, and the meaning of the epidemic and how it fits into the novel remain unclear to me.

Despite this last puzzle, and for greater mastery of language, detail, and character the winner of round one is


Arcadia will make it into the second round of judging. The next contest in the first round is Casual Vacancy vs Yellow Birds, judged by Barb P. Look for that tomorrow.