Florida is Lauren Groff’s fifth book and second short story collection. Groff’s prior work is notable for its ambitious and sprawling style. Each line of Groff’s most recent novel, Fates and Furies, snapped like a punch to heart. Florida is no less ambitious, but here Groff is subtler, prowling like the panther paused on the book’s cover.
Florida inoculates itself against strong description. So seductive and self-contained is Groff’s writing that any metaphor or explanation for how the words and ideas of this collection move already exist in the book itself. The short stories in Florida are like specimens in a greenhouse—carefully pruned and curated, some constructed and let to seed, some placed just so. Like a botanist, in Florida, Groff crossbreeds fertile strands of storytelling and fairytale to harvest new means to represent an anxious present in short fiction.
Groff’s eleven stories are largely in third person, and only three feature protagonists with names. Helen in “Salvador,” experiences a natural and personal cataclysm while on vacation in Brazil. Jude, in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” the mathematician son of bookish Northern mother and cruel, snake-obsessed Southern father, gropes his way through life. But for the most part, the characters featured are unnamed, driven women with children. In “The Midnight Zone,” a mother, alone with her sons, suffers a concussion in an isolated cabin menaced by a panther, and floats in and out of her body. In “Ghosts and Empties,” another mother paces the streets at night, trying to leech the rage and anxiety from her body.
The strangest and most surreal of these tales is “Eyewall.” Refusing to leave her house in the face of an oncoming hurricane, a nameless woman is visited by three dead loves—her ex-husband, first boyfriend, and father. They come not to save her, but to offer her company through the storm. She survives, where others who wisely fled do not. Her house comes apart. At the storm’s end, opening her door to survey the damage—torn up home, torn up yard, dead neighbors, dead prize chickens—she finds, “out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.” In the end, readers don’t know if the protagonist is drunk, or hallucinating, or if she’s been truly visited by ghosts. And it doesn’t matter. Imperative truth isn’t at stake here—fidelity to deep emotion is.
This eerie egg is one of three round objects Groff ends a story on—the others being a peach and an orange. There are other repetitive, recursive images and tropes that structure the stories: two boys, one dark, one fair; a lonely and bookish mother; illuminating lightning strikes; out-of-body experiences; absent or golden husbands; sudden storms; nameless female narrators; gnawing anxiety about climate change. Alongside her matter-of-fact grip on the surreal, these are the tools of a tradition older than the realist fiction novel—the fairy tale.
Fairy tales are spaces where cruelty and the surreal are unsurprising. They are ancient mechanisms for working through dark experiences. Everyday life, and nature, are sometimes too unexpected and unbelievable to fly beneath the flag of realism. Especially in an age where climate change makes a catastrophe of the everyday.
Climate fiction is often set in a post-apocalyptic future, in another world, or installs immediate iterations of climate change—a storm, a drought, wildfire—at its center. But the trouble with these novels is that they glance past the question of how to represent the concrete implications of a planet changing in the present. Climate change becomes a narrative prop, or a signal of relevance or seriousness, when for most people it is a reality. There are exceptions, like N.K. Jemisin and Margaret Atwood, who in writing stage provocative and potent imaginings of the end of the world; but here, the exceptions tend to define the rule.
Groff offers a different approach in Florida. Her writing houses slow, grinding alterations of ecology, attending to encroaching, peripheral things. It speaks about emotional resonance. It regards the intimate dystopias that smolder in the present, close enough to touch. Here is the warm, summery day, choked with green trees and chirping birds in the late months of winter. “Surely, her bad pet dread would never think to look for here,” thinks the protagonist of “Yport,” who has escaped to France from the Florida heat. The characters in these stories are always going elsewhere to run from their bad pet—France, Brazil, Boston, the Florida streets at night, the past (through books)—but there is no getting away from it. “Even Paris has become somehow Floridian,” realizes the same woman,
…all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts. It is ten degrees warmer than it should be… She had always thought this would be the place to be during the climate wars that she sees looming in the future. A city of water, surrounded by fields, temperate and contained. But maybe there is no place to be; maybe all places on a hotter planet will be equally bad, desert and hunger everywhere, even here.
This lends urgency to the attention Groff pays to the nature around her. She pins every natural object to its place in the world with its name: palmetto, sandspur, coral snake, rattler, camphor, crape myrtle, magnolia. She is this particular with every aspect of language, not just names. The sentence is Groff’s most fertile ground. At each turn, she crafts meticulous images and descriptions of sensation that spread through the reader “like ink through water.” This particularity cares for a disappearing world. It is also a kind of elegiac mania, grasping at sand as it slips through your fingers.
Groff’s Florida is touched by sublimity. It is an “Eden of beautiful things,” glorious and decayed, attacked and altering. It is to be loved, feared, defended, cared for. The narrator of “Flower Hunters,” arrives at something like this understanding. Anxious about everything—the ice caps, the sinkhole behind her house, her marriage, her children—she’s cut herself off from this feeling. Yet, despite her ever-present dread, the feeling of rain sluicing along her bare skin plugs the woman back into herself, if only for a moment. “Not everything is decaying faster than we can love it,” realizes an earlier narrator. And while these moments and revelations do not add up to salvation, this collection offers the possibility of something greater than despair.