Few writers would dare to pick as the title of a collection of 11 short stories the name of a state that is home to 21 million people, more than a million alligators, countless snakes, and a few hundred critically endangered panthers. The word “Florida” cues readers to dream big, to demand the bizarre, to expect the exotic above all: Florida Man, palm trees, margaritas, cafecitos. Instead, on the book’s opening page, we learn that an unnamed first-person narrator has “taken to lacing on [her] running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk.” We may begin our Florida journey expecting to drive through glass-and-concrete canyons with the heirs of Crockett and Tubbs or to ride an airboat through the river of grass, but we in fact find ourselves strolling through a small-town neighborhood in the company of a middle-class white woman, a wife and mother of two.
By calling her most recent book Florida, Lauren Groff appears to promise readers a state-of-the-state epic, a literary attempt to capture the glories and contradictions of this global repository for utopian dreams and oligarchical nightmares, these lands and waters of subtropical splendor and suburban sprawl. Three years after her novel Fates and Furies resurrected the fictional marriage plot, wrung every last ounce of literary juice out of it, turned it inside out, and blew it up, Groff seems ready for even greater feats of world-building. In Fates and Furies, Florida was the place of fascinating, corrosive excess where the husband, Lotto, grew up, but it remained largely in the background. Groff’s follow-up work promises a literary journey to the extravagant land of Lotto’s youth.
However, the first story of the collection, “Ghosts and Empties,” deftly thwarts our expectations of reading The Great Florida Novel. Having “somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells,” the Gainesville flâneuse leaves her house every evening, observing her neighbors out walking their dogs or inside exercising on treadmills, while she leaves “the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.” Instead of traveling to the gothic world of the subtropical macabre, we have entered the bourgeois quotidian world of realist fiction. The neighborhood consists of “Victorian houses,” and it “is cold in January.” Where are we, Connecticut? The first story of Florida is a quietly methodical domestic tale, in which the subtropical environment is an atmospheric backdrop rather than a driving force: “Smells are exhaled into the air,” in the passive voice, “oak dust, slime mold, camphor.” It would be easy to miss the “bird-of-paradise flowers [that] poke out of the shadows.” This is Florida life, but not as we know it.
The reader is guided to see Florida as ordinary, because it has become ordinary to the narrator, before Groff dramatizes the experience of seeing the state as larger than life.
In mixing bird-of-paradise flowers with “feral cats” and Victorian houses, Groff figures Florida as familiar and extraordinary at the same time. Using the perspective of the northerner settled for years in Florida, Groff condenses this familiar strangeness into the point of view of that white, middle-class female narrator, who reappears in several, but not all, of these stories. In an unnamed town that resembles Gainesville, the bird-of-paradise flowers have become ordinary—but not quite ordinary enough that the narrator would stop noticing them. A live oak in front of a large house occupied by nuns is part of the neighborhood infrastructure, but the narrator only truly sees it when a new neighbor installs “uplighting” after the last of the nuns moves out: “I’ve always known the tree was there … But the tree has never before announced itself fully as the colossus it is … I stand shocked by its beauty.”
The reader is guided to see Florida as ordinary, because it has become ordinary to the narrator, before Groff dramatizes the experience of seeing the state as larger than life: the uplit oak “so broad it spreads out over a half acre,” the “swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.”
So, then, just as extraordinary, comes the moment of violence or gothic haunting that we no longer take to be the expected mode of Florida writing. The smell of oak dust gives way to the smell of smoke: we learn it is caused by a “controlled burn” designed by developers to drive out the homeless people living near the city center. The narrator, forced from her own home by powerful feelings she struggles to control, wants her children to know that her “spirit” has “slipped back into the house” to lie beside them on their pillows and to touch the temple of her husband, “this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much.”
There are Florida-specific threats in Florida—a hurricane (in “Eyewall”), panthers (in “The Midnight Zone”), or alligators and the broiling sun (in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”)—but the real danger is much closer to home. The narrator is haunting her own house, the one she has driven herself away from because she has internalized the world’s anger at a “woman who yells” and misrecognizes her own anger as a symptom of failure. There is the “gentle” husband, who does not yell and whose cheating, therefore, his wife refuses to see; there was a previous boyfriend, “good-looking, cried at movies, played ultimate,” introduced by the narrator as “a nice man” she dated “for a summer in Boston,” before she recalls the harrowing night that he raped her. Groff’s sympathetic but clinical handling of the grim conclusion to that tale, “Snake Stories,” uncovers the traumatic memory of assault while demonstrating how the attack was disavowed and buried—“I never told anyone.” Ultimately “that man,” the rapist, will always be “a nice guy, everyone said,” and the narrator has little choice but to accept this judgment despite her personal evidence that proves the opposite.
In the best story here, “Flower Hunters,” the same woman—or someone very much like her—is the protagonist of a third-person narrative, in which the temporary family separation of “Ghosts and Empties” is reversed. Now she stays home while her husband and sons are out in the neighborhood on the one night of the year in which walking without a dog is an acceptable activity for middle-class people in Florida: Halloween. While they trick-or-treat, she waits at home handing out candy to children dressed as clowns and superheroes, nursing a large glass of Shiraz and a growing fear of the “small sinkhole that opened in the rain yesterday near the southeast corner of her house.” She goes out to look into the hole, imagining an enormous cavity underlying the smaller crater, hoping that “if she says sinkhole, her husband will race home in the rain” and “they will put the boys to bed and stand together at the lip of the sinkhole, and maybe she will become solid again.”
It is a distressing, haunting image of the contemplation of nature—a kind of subtropical anti–Walden Pond. All the more so since there are intimations that the Floridian environment could be as restorative as the Concord woods: as she stands in the rain at the edge of the hole, a gentle stream of water runs down her body underneath her slicker and “unfurl[s] itself luxuriously over her right hip.” This sensation summons images of breastfeeding her children, of closeness to her best friend Meg—whose break with the protagonist is the real crisis of this story—and, strangely, of the writer she has been reading for comfort in the days since the breakup with Meg, the early Florida naturalist and explorer, William Bartram.
She hopes to recapture the sense of wonder experienced by Bartram when he traveled in the 1770s from Pennsylvania to “the deep semitropical forest” of what is now the southeastern United States: for example, his sensual delight in a small blue flower that for the 21st-century protagonist is just “a weed in her own garden.” Fearing her gentle husband, fearing the environmental catastrophe of climate change—the “coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico” being killed by “a mysterious whitish slime”—she “brings William Bartram in his book costume out to the front porch” while she waits for Halloween witches to visit. It’s a lovely line of free indirect discourse, capturing the protagonist’s quizzical affection for Bartram, but also hinting at a trickier, darker side of Enlightenment science, in line with the visiting child collecting candy while dressed up as “a prospector with a tiny pick,” environmental and human rampage in an adorable costume.
The title “Florida” becomes a literary provocation. It makes the familiar state name strange, perhaps asking the reader to recall its origins in Spanish conquest.
William Bartram’s rapt, lyrical impressions of nature can’t be disentangled from the history of European naturalists, who described the tropical world in order to subdue it. A reader attuned to literary history may be reminded of the importance of Bartram’s Florida in the development of literary writing in English that put the interiority of ordinary men and women at the center. William Wordsworth (in The Prelude, The Excursion, and Lyrical Ballads), Dorothy Wordsworth (in her journals), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (most famously in “Kubla Khan”) echo or directly quote from Bartram’s Travels in their writing. Florida was a vital component of their revolutionary insistence on the drama of interior life, their fascination with the natural world, and their reliance on exotic, tropical motifs embedded within and animating the bourgeois European world.
Groff’s Florida turns its uplighting on this literary and cultural history, putting at its core the consciousness of a person, like a latter-day William or Dorothy Wordsworth, who cares deeply about what we now call “the environment,” while at the same time showing this concern to be partly an effect of structural privileges of race and class. Florida is the contemporary locus of this tangle of contradictions. The white, middle-class mother feels guilty for her last-minute Halloween costume that sends one of her sons out into the neighborhood as “an old-style ghost … a white boy in a white sheet, Florida still the Deep South.” She has forgotten the holiday because she has spent too much time reading Bartram, the “dead Quaker” with whom “she’s most definitely in love.”
The stunning trick of Florida is to tell stories that dramatize the intersection at which white middle-class American women’s suffering under heteronormativity crosses paths with these same women’s complicity in racial and imperial practices from which they benefit. The narrators and characters recognize this entanglement but either don’t or can’t understand the consequences. This is dramatized most clearly in “Snake Stories,” in which the narrator’s generous impulse to come to the assistance of a young Latinx woman she finds injured in an alley ends in frustration, with the wounded woman refusing to be taken to a hospital and insisting instead on being dropped off at a rundown house, leading the narrator to deploy her “white-woman insistence” to get the police to go to the house only to find that the injured woman has fled. The narrator’s tears are for the injured woman but also for her own inability to be the savior she hoped she could be. Characteristically, and unsettlingly, Groff gives the salient words here to a racist cop. Having dismissed the disappeared woman as one of “those people, when they come here, they’re like children,” he goes on to say, “Lady, you can’t help people who don’t want your help.”
Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth
In the end, the title Florida becomes a literary provocation. It makes the familiar state name strange, perhaps asking the reader to recall its origins in Spanish conquest. Although Groff actually thanks “Florida, sunniest and strangest of states” in her acknowledgments, her stories self-consciously and consistently portray only a slice of contemporary Florida: white, middle-class north Florida. Look, the stories seem to say, here is Florida—and at the edges of this Florida, fuzzy edges beyond which the narrative point of view cannot easily pass are many other Floridas. Twenty-one million other Floridas. And then, further away, a few hundred more Floridas belonging to the critically endangered panther, whose image graces the cover of this startling book.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.