Groff and the Radical Act of Paying Attention

“I had read Groff all wrong, subjecting her to a sexist and dismissive logic.”

She doesn’t have a name when we meet her, though she’s been given many over the years: Lamentations, assigned to her as a foundling, a name of profound grief and mourning if also poetry; Zed, formerly the name of her mistress’s pet monkey, “the least and the littlest and the last to be counted like the strangest of all the letters of the alphabet”; “murderess,” perhaps a fair description of her legal status, if not her spiritual one. But “Girl” is what she calls herself, as she urges her starving body and exhausted legs and indefatigable spirit deeper into the wilderness.

The girl—the runaway protagonist of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wilds—has spent her life being shunted from one institution to the next: first, an orphanage; then servitude; then brought to the Jamestown Colony by her mistress without consent. Fleeing the starving, diseased encampment, she sloughs off these past names and identities and “dwindle[s] the self she had once known down to nothing.” But with this evacuation of the self into nothing comes great knowledge and insight. For “a nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past,” and, what’s more, “a nothing could be free.” Releasing the girl from the oppressive structures in which she had been enclosed, The Vaster Wilds is equally interested in exploring a spirituality unfettered by patriarchy, a god not reduced to that of a specific religious text or rite but as expansive as the cosmos. Hierarchies thus reordered, the girl finds herself in holy communion with nature.

In The Vaster Wilds, a servant girl escapes the Jamestown Colony in 1609, and attempts to survive in the wilderness. She escapes during the winter known as the Starving Time, though as the novel progresses, we learn that the famine is only one type of suffering motivating her flight. It is a tale reminiscent of early American writing: captivity narratives and survival stories, peppered with the brimstone of Puritan sermons. Yet, in The Vaster Wilds, Groff sought to “transform the stereotypically combative and masculine relationship” between man and nature—the conflict that structures tales of survival—“into something feminine, more profound and subtle.”1

It seems a great risk for a writer to compose a novel around a character who so persistently thinks herself “a nothing,” whose thoughts are focused so intently on daily survival and bodily needs. For a writer less skilled than Groff, a novel like The Vaster Wilds could easily read as a slog. Days and nights of endless running and cold bleed together, and the mending of boots is hardly scintillating material. The Vaster Wilds follows the girl closely in a tight third person, taking only occasional detours as she encounters (rare) others on her journey, slowly unspooling the girl’s history to explain how she has been brought to Jamestown, and why she is so desperate to escape from it. When the girl’s attention flags, she strays from her path, losing days to wandering in circles, finding herself far from her intended course. The lesson for the reader is clear: slow down, pay attention, look closely. Meandering sentences turn on unexpected verbs, as when the girl comes upon a natural hot spring; crystalline images emerging from the bleakest of settings, as when she finds fish frozen in a shallow pond.

To sustain such a taut narrative requires a different sort of skill than subsisting in the wilderness, but Groff exercises the same discipline and force of will as her protagonist. And—just as the novel, in its shocking final sentence, turns to address the present-tense reader directly—so too are we invited to exercise Groff’s, and the girl’s, discipline ourselves.

Like many readers, no doubt, I came to Lauren Groff’s work backward. I picked up Fates and Furies amid the hubbub surrounding its selection by Barack Obama as his favorite book of the year, and thanks to the recommendation of a friend. I stayed in bed one Saturday to read the vivisection of a marriage, start to finish; I instagrammed the cover.

Fates and Furies is as intelligent as it is commercial. On the one hand, the book is peppered with allusions to Greek mythology and theater history, with a chorus offering occasional commentary on its characters; on the other, it is wracked by a Gone Girl–style big reveal at the midpoint, leaving readers questioning and reconsidering the characters we thought we knew and understood. Yet, in this turn, the story of One Marriage is revealed to be a story of Love, Art, Creativity, Ambition, not specific but eternal—a myth.

Imagine my surprise as I read my way through Groff’s bibliography to find people, places, and things much stranger, vaster. I encountered in Monsters of Templeton a prehistoric lake monster who concludes the novel with a lyric poem, and in Arcadia, a 1970s commune as seen by a five-year-old boy, so fully realized and sensorially evocative as to turn my stomach and prick my eyes in equal measure.

I had read Groff all wrong, subjecting her to the sexist and dismissive logic of what Lili Loofbourow has called “the male glance”: I saw a woman, writing about a marriage, endorsed by Obama’s PR powerhouse for its titillating plot twist, when I should have noticed the gem-like sentences and flaming images and resounding insight.

Her settings are domestic. She writes of intimacy, community, family; of nature, faith, revelation. She writes of women: quiet yet ultimately very powerful women, on whose back institutions are built, but who go, ultimately, unrecognized by those very same. Their bodies are imperfect; they take up space. They are tall and imposing, as in Hannah and Astrid of Arcadia or Mathilde of Fates and Furies. Marie of Matrix is as huge a physical presence as she is a spiritual one, described as a “giantess”, her face “horsey”; meanwhile, the nuns of her abbey are fleshy and alive—one has a mole, one has whiskers, one is aptly named “Swan-neck.” (Groff clearly loves them all fiercely; it is impossible not to.) And now, in The Vaster Wilds, Groff spends little time on the girl’s appearance, save to tell us that she is emaciated, she has fleas, she is filthy; her body’s decay is but an impetus for her spirit’s flight, which is, simply, far more interesting.

In Groff’s skillful hands, women are complicated, ambitious, difficult, multitudinous. They are, without contradiction, at once loving and angry, fearsome and gentle, visionary and ordinary. And, in The Vaster Wilds, they open the door to so much more.

The extremity of the girl’s journey and the constraints of the historic setting show Groff at her most ambitious. The Vaster Wilds is her fifth novel and seventh book since 2008. Each novel is wildly different from the last, each immersed in a new locale, steeped in a new lexicon: Elizabethan language in The Vaster Wilds. Ancien français and the rule of St. Benedict of Matrix. A 1970s commune in Arcadia. As Groff’s readers have come to expect, in her prodigiously talented hands, the girl’s solitary, wandering mind is the staging ground for an epic drama.

For nothing, as it turns out, means quite a lot. By hewing closely to the girl’s mind and body, the novel opens upon a vast, cosmic, nonhuman expanse of time. Steeped in Puritan theology, she understands herself but a “speck” in the universe, “infinitesimal,” “insignificant, a mote,” compared to the fullness and divinity of god. But this smallness enables her to sense “the earth under her in its spin,” and to know “herself to be a piece of it, necessary and large enough.” She envisions for herself and eternity not beyond pearly gates but as a tree, “her feet stretching down to burrow luxurious into the rich loam of the forest,” and her “arms growing arms, fingers bursting to leaf, and yearning toward the sun.” She learns the “gospel” in “the language of the bears.” She sees god thrumming through all things around her, such that even “the stones, with their lives so slow that to all impatient moving creatures of animated life they did appear unmoving” reveal, in the end, that “in the long scale of their lives,” they also “meet and mate … erupt and splinter,” and contain “incredible vitality.”

Nothing, then, is not the absence of god, but the everlasting “light and heat,” from which “all goodness poured.”

The sacred feminine is a theme in Groff’s novels, nowhere more apparent than her two most recent, The Vaster Wilds and Matrix. The two are sister novels. Groff was working on The Vaster Wilds when she was visited by a sort of revelation, a flash of inspiration that set her to pursuing a fictionalization of the life of poet and nun Marie de France.

On their faces, the two novels seem quite different: one is the story of a well-educated, wealthy, but unmarriageable woman, banished from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, only to become a powerful Abbess; the other is about an illiterate and unnamed serving girl braving the elements in the North American wilderness. Although set oceans and centuries apart, the two books arrive at complementary conclusions. The women at the center of both novels slough off generations of patriarchal theology, and seek revelation in the natural world. Even so, one of these women is anonymous, nothing; the other wrote poetry that is still read and taught today. One woman flees all institutions before she can be cast out by them; the other becomes an institution.

The Vaster Wilds is equally interested in exploring a spirituality unfettered by patriarchy, a god not reduced to that of a specific religious text or rite but as expansive as the cosmos.

Still, there is a natural sequence in these two novels—a sort of call and response—about how one can or must change their relationship to religious institutions. (This is easy to chart in the lives of those of us who once numbered among the faithful, but now find ourselves outside denominational folds—a background that Groff and I share). First, there is a desire to reform the institutions that have long structured belief, ordered days, produced meaning for both the already and the not yet; to reform by pursuing a feminist theology, an antiracist theology, an environmentalist theology, a queer affirming theology.

But, second, there is the realization that institutions are fragile; they corrupt; they cling to power and are not easily changed. Moments before one of Marie’s great failures, she is awestruck by her own authority, feeling “papal.” Ultimately, her radical-feminist revelation does not withstand generational shifts; the written record of her divine visions is cast into the fire by the abbess who succeeds her, so afraid is she of the rebellious and heretical teachings therein.

Abandoning the project of reformation, the journey of The Vaster Wilds is one of spiritual rebellion and freedom. The girl is terrified, at first, at leaving the security and structure of her religious community. She quickly quashes the questions that arise in her mind—“what if, girl, god is all; does that mean that, within the all that god is, there is nothing?”—and runs ahead, deep into the wilderness. In the Christian tradition, “the wilderness” is a metaphor for spiritual struggle, a place where one’s faith is put to the test: the Israelites wander in the wilderness; Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But the girl gives into the wilderness’s temptations. And what she finds, true to the novel’s title, is a spiritual realm vaster and more expansive than she had previously imagined. Perhaps “the wilderness” is the space outside of religion proper: the space of temptation and damnation. But, as Groff reveals, it is also the source of the divine.

Between Matrix and The Vaster Wilds, Groff stages a sort of dialogue. Novels are, perhaps, like people in this way: “against the resistance of other minds, one’s thoughts are pulled out of their comfortable shapes, and true thinking begins.” Though the dialogue consists both call and response, question and answer, it is not yet complete. The conversation will continue in a third novel that Groff is writing, which also stems from the idea that “so much of our present suffering comes from a misreading of Genesis,” from a perversion of the notion of dominion.

In Eden, the girl of The Vaster Wilds comes to understand, Adam became drunk on his own power as he named the animals and plants. He then “felt his dominion tipping into domination until he believed that he owned the world” and “that all the things of the world were his to do with as he wished.” (Though Eve also participated in the naming of the animals, she escapes Groff’s critique: the will to dominate is a masculine one.) It is this will to dominate that, for Groff in the 21st century, has led to all sort of global ills: climate change, for one, and also white supremacy (“surely,” the girl thinks, despite the names thrust upon them by the English, “the people of this place had their own names for things”).

Despite her many radical revelations, this principle remains beyond Marie’s grasp in Matrix. Surveying the masterful labyrinth that she and her nuns have constructed, Marie “does not see” the “families of squirrels, of dormice, of voles, of badgers, of stoats who have been chased in confusion from their homes, the trees felled that held green woodpeckers, the pine martens, the mistle thrushes and the long-tailed tits, the woodcocks and the capercaillies chased from their nests, the willow warbler vanished in a panic from these lands for the time being.” Such inattention, we see, is because Marie is so enthralled by her own capacity for domination, her own project of expansion.

Against such a model of domination in Matrix, Groff proposes a project of radical attention in The Vaster Wilds: paying studious attention to that which often passes beneath notice. Marie finds monuments to her own ingenuity. But the girl, for her part, comes to understand that “it is a moral failure to miss the profound beauty of the world.”

Like the girl of The Vaster Wilds, Groff’s keenest gift as a writer is her ability to “see something now moving beneath the everyday, the daily, the gray and oppressive stuff of the self, something more like an intricate geometry that lived beneath the surface of the material world.” For under the heat and pressure of such intense, concentrated attention, that “more … intricate geometry” kaleidoscopically reveals the sacred. The ordinary is but a threshold through which we might glimpse the fullness of the divine. icon

This article was commissioned by Tara K. Menon.
  1. Lauren Groff, “Author’s Letter.” Pre-publication material to The Vaster Wilds.
Featured image: Woman Sitting on Land by Andrew Neel via Unsplash (CC by Unsplash License).