Arcadia & Apple Brandy Are a Hellenistic Match Made in Heaven
It's hard to write about Lauren Groff's Arcadia without lapsing into euphoric hyperbole, so I'll keep it simple: this is the best novel I've read in a long, long time. Reviewers have been wise to avoid providing readers with details of the book's broader narrative arc because, certainly, part of the pleasure derived from reading the book comes from watching its protagonist, Bit Stone, navigate three dramatically different worlds. Read it, and you'll see what I mean.
You'll also notice that Bit is often clueless as to whether he should follow his head or his heart. He's conflicted and contradictory and, as with all good creatures, his redemption is found in his unwillingness to sacrifice those close to him for the sake of his desires. It's a sort of constancy that's both wrenching and admirable. It's also true, of course, that characters like Bit have a way of sometimes falling over the cliff-edge of believability, of wandering into sentimental Atticus Finch territory. Not that there's not everything to love in Atticus Finch, but anybody whose seen their father break something in anger or treat someone unkindly or unfairly or react in irrational or unloving ways (most of us, in other words), knows that Atticus is a fantasy (a lovely one, sure, but a fantasy nonetheless).
By contrast, the beauty of Bit Stone is that Groff never loses sight of who and what he is: he's painfully self-conscious and sad, and occasionally dramatic in his attempted solutions to loneliness and desperation (he goes mute in response to his mother's depression, believing that his quiet fortitude will shake her from her stupor). He's an artist whose childhood on a commune in upstate New York (the Arcadia of the title) has shaped him in ways expected and not. The weight of being the first infant born in the commune--the "first Arcadian"--resonates deeply within him. His optimism and nostalgia are (thankfully, smartly) tempered by the observations and experiences of other Arcadians, namely Hannah, his brutally beautiful, tender, and damaged mother and Helle, the object of long-suffering Bit's affection. Unlike Bit, Helle remembers a childhood of lack, want, poverty, and hunger. The distance between Bit's and Helle's memories is a necessary window through which the reader is allowed to see Arcadia as nothing so grim as Helle's gulag and nothing so charming as Hannah's back-to-the-land utopia.
Of course, it's a cliche to say that truth rarely adheres to a polemic, that things are almost never solely black or white, nor people entirely beatific or nefarious. Groff's immensely bold and lovely prose makes the expression of this principle (and all of its manifest implications: that the men, women, and children of Arcadia could be hungry and happy, that Arcadia was a sort of heaven and a sort of prison) something more than ordinary. In fact, Groff's done what a novelist should do (far be it from me to say what a novelist "should do," but to hell with it: novelists should do this): she's taken the seemingly ordinary and spun it into something capable of eliciting fierce and sincere pathos. If there's a better conception of what a novel (or all art?) can and should do, I'm hard pressed to find it.
Suffice it to say that this book is a kind of high-water mark, a novel that I'll (unfairly and inevitably) compare to the next novel I read (and the one after that, and after that, etc.).
All of which has me thinking about alcohol, per usual.
Image courtesy of Ol Green Goat on Flickr
If Groff's naturalism isn't quite your mama's naturalism (again, just read the book), then Clear Creek Distillery's Apple Brandy isn't exactly your typical Apple Brandy--it's aromatic and lightly spiced and bright on the tongue even while being clean on the finish. I wanted to give it a nod here because, well, you can sip on an imported Calvados if that's your jam, or you can go with a domestically produced Apple brandy (or Eau de Vie or Poire or Grappa, whatever's your pleasure--Clear Creek has a great catalog) that's great post-dessert or in a variety of cocktails.
Because Groff's Arcadians distill their own "Slap Apple" (a cider of sorts that is sometimes spiked with illicit hallucinogens), this felt like the right pear-ing (zing!) to me. Also, as Arcadia is deeply invested in Hellenistic semiotics (it's called Arcadia, for goodness' sake, and Bit's lover is named Helle), Clear Creek Apple Brandy is the obvious sipper here.
It should also be noted--as it is on Clear Creek's website--that unlike pears, apples float. As such, the Golden Delicious fruits that they grow in the bottle and that are available seasonally (soaked, of course, in Clear Creek Apple Brandy), float in their lovely, wide-shouldered bottles. It'd be hard to find a better metaphor for Bit's buoyant (if revisionist) view of the gone-by golden days than a Golden Delicious apple floating in the gleaming and delicious distillate of the same fruit.