Lauren Groff: “Above and Below”

08/05/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011.

“How delicate the things that tie us to one another. The hands in her flesh, her own crossed on her chest, her daughter’s tiny fists drawn up into the air.” Delicate indeed, when you consider the exceedingly light steps Groff has taken to get here, beginning with the girl’s decision to say goodbye to her goods and to move into her station wagon. “Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.” By the end, however, she is full (even though she is no longer pregnant), having chosen to love, and upon that one letter difference hinges the success of Groff’s story, for she leaves us to fill in the gap. Here’s what we do know:

  • Broken-hearted, or at least broken-walleted, she takes a vacation from responsibility, lounging all day on various beaches: “She watched her skin toast and her hair shift from honey to lemon.” This is the physical transformation, which Groff is a little too heavy-handed in explaining: “The scar on her hand turned a lovely silver in the sun and she sometimes stroked it absently, signifier in lieu of signified, the scratch for the lost life.” There are details of her scrounging, but only just enough: for instance, she showers, unquestioned, in the gyms of fancy beachside condos; she finds “food–read and bruised fruit–heaped, clean, in a dumpster behind a specialty grocer.”
  • Next comes an emotional transformation: “It was a cleansing, she decided. If pretty words couldn’t save her, then losing them, too, was all for the best,” and she puts this to the test by going home from a bar with “the kind of student who always got a B- in her classes, mostly on good-willed effort alone.” She finds herself out of sorts with softness, first the “overwhelming” nature of the bed, then the “abundance” of the refrigerator, which “stilled” her, and finally, the half-understood empathy of her one-night stand who, instead of accusing her of pilfering his food, “touched the small of her back and said a soft, Oh, honey, and this was infinitely worse.”
  • After her car is destroyed by petty vandals (“‘Middlemarch,’ of all fucking things, gone”) there’s a mental transformation, too: an erasure in which the girl severs all ties with her mother, no longer phoning, and abandons all remaining possessions. One night, she ends up in the employ of a talkative old man who cleans clubs, and it is alongside the jokingly nicknamed Euclid-Euclean that she learns to simulate the sensation she once gained from reading (and in fact, she gets the job because she’s locked out of the library she’s been hiding in): whereas “words were space carved out of life, warm and safe,” so too is cleaning, which also “detached her mind from herself.”

By this point, when she encounters people she once knew in her other life, she is not only unrecognizable to them, but they are hardly recognizable to her: “It was a kind of wealth you don’t know you have until you stand shivering outside in the morning, watching what you used to be.” And it’s here that the story falters, perhaps too long for its own good, for we now begin to question, given pangs of jealousy like this, why she continues to choose this life (it is depicted, at least, as a choice). She follows, blindly, a group of homeless people to a tent city and shacks up with a single mother and the mother’s four kids, and it doesn’t seem as if much is learned from the encounter. Though the mother is arrested for prostitution — she did not choose this life, and she is attempting to get her children back into a house, at any cost — the girl seems unchanged, and merely wanders off “leaving Jane’s tent still up, the children’s belongings tidied into piles and her own sleeping bag in the center in craven apology.”

We’re fully in vignette mode by this point, for the girl is no longer changing — she’s simply having encounters, of the sort William Vollman writes about in his travel journals and his adult boxcar-riding, but without the presence. (Consider, also, Kerouac.) The final vignette, then, involves the girl’s arrival at what is known as “the Prairie House,” a squat with so few rules and responsibilities that she deems it representative of both heaven and hell. (There’s the meaning of that title, in case you were wondering.) All this freedom, but just as we’ve seen in the last several New Yorker stories — a running theme of modern fiction, perhaps — she just wants to be saved. And it’s here that the story loses me, jump-cutting from “There was nobody who could save her, nobody who could deliver her gently back to the solace of people” to “The night on the prairie returned to her during the long and difficult birth of her daughter, years later…”

Yes, we’ve seen how difficult and fragile life can be, we’ve seen how the good and bad can be distilled to a matter of perspective, but we haven’t really followed this girl’s arc, and so these last several pages and especially the ending, feel aimless and unearned. We know what Groff is getting it, and you can admire the clarity of her writing — I’m interested in the simplicity of her ideas and the way the actions feel so natural (given our proximity to the narrator) — but these poetic grasps at significance don’t do the grounded structure of the rest of the story any favors.

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