It’s All So Much: On Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’

When I was growing up in Florida, we called it God’s Waiting Room, but not because we thought it was heavenly. The elderly retired in Florida, “waiting” for death, and we kids who joked about it were waiting, too. Not for death, but to leave for older, darker, nobler, safer states. I say safer because for a certain kind of person Florida can feel dangerous. It’s spread too thin over spongy limestone, sprawling in every direction except up or down. Everything is overexposed; the horizon oppresses; the ground might even swallow you whole. There are no hills or valleys or basements—no cuddling natural borders, no places to hide. Things and people spill out and stick together like cracked eggs in this gun-shaped frying pan. Leave if you can, but Florida will stick; Florida will follow. In fact, you can never really leave the Sunshine State, as Lauren Groff intimately apprehends in her excellent collection, Florida. In these 11 stories, Florida is not necessarily the setting or the subject, nor the sordid punch line it’s often made out to be. Instead, Florida is the thing that Groff’s fly-wing delicate characters can’t escape. That doesn’t keep them from trying. All the stories Groff tells here are, at some level, chronicles of flight. Women walk through the particularly creepy streets of Gainesville or the palmettos of its surrounding prairie, trying to escape what they hate about themselves or what they love too much. Men row into tea-hot ponds to evade the twilight of their own mythmaking. Others wade into swamps to cockfight with snakes, stimulating the bravery they otherwise lack. Mothers holiday in France or Florida’s tangled forests, fighting to escape the fact that they love their babies more than they can protect them. Children, young or grown, cloy for freedom from their parents, living or dead. All of them quake with trepidation about living just one more day: They love life too rapturously. “Ghosts and Empties,” the first story in the collection, prefaces these themes and introduces patterns that repeat throughout the book. Like most of the stories to follow, it exists entirely in the mind of its protagonist. Here, it’s a mother who has “somehow become a woman who yells” and takes up an evening ritual of walking through the charmingly tarnished Duck Pond neighborhood of Gainesville. She intends the walk to exorcise her rage, stoked from “reading about the disaster of the world…millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.” Instead, she becomes a witness to the tiny but unceasing changes occurring around her, “gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” Her escape fails, forcing her to concede that to be alive is to overflow, and to accept that “nothing is not always in transition.” Failed flights of this sort form the narrative spine of Florida’s stories: Like this first protagonist, most of Groff’s characters fail to get too far from who and where they no longer wish to be. They are (deliberately) too empathic, handicapped by their hypersensitivity to beauty and filth, and they tend either toward hedonism or hibernation but cannot find a place between. Language, ironically, disappoints them; they hunger for touch in order to know the truth of things. In one way or another, they are all willfully globed in one-way glass, observing the world but utterly unable to communicate with it, let alone exist in it—perhaps for the best. Groff designs characters that embody the ambivalence of loving life itself while being terrified to live. The second story, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” most richly embodies this kind of character in the form of Jude, who “was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” His father is an abusive, racist herpetologist at a thinly veiled University of Florida; his mother, a well-read woman worn out like a paperback by the man she married. The father grinds Jude down, too, disgusted by his oversensitivity. Words are no use to Jude, for whom “knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud. He would never begin to hold another in his mind like an equation, pure and entire.” Though his mathematical brilliance takes him far away up North, he finds his way back to the quaint little bowl of Gainesville. Eventually, he loses his hearing inexplicably, forced to communicate even more through the body. Florida completely beguiles the body: It’s a place of flesh memories, and Groff is at her most delightful when conjuring Florida’s tingles and miasmas and gummy heat as they stimulate the skin. For Groff, Florida’s bodies are sites of congealment, quivering at the threshold of combustion. They fascinate her, and her prose exquisitely decomposes all emotions and experiences into their sensory components. Even when the characters crack out of their flesh, they hover in surreal planes that remain richly embodied, as in “The Midnight Zone.” Here, a concussed mother is marooned in a secluded cabin circled by a Florida panther, flowing in and out of consciousness, waiting for her husband to come back (men, in these stories, are for the most part either fleshy pillows, fickle vipers, or too far away to even matter). Her little boys fail to keep her awake, and she disassociates, “as if the best of me were detaching from my body.” Her spectral form glides into the humid night, where the “great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me.” [millions_ad] Though the emphasis on embodied experience certainly charges the stories erotically, it does not make them prurient. Instead, they have the bewildered innocence and wide-eyed wisdom of a child who sees things exactly as they are—as bad as they look, or more beautiful than older eyes can be bothered to see. Even the adults are terminally un-grown-up, perpetually resenting and yearning for parents who are dead, absent, or oblivious. Jude hallucinates the ghost of his father scolding him for living a life that was far too safe, too passionless. In “Salvador,” the narrator weathers a hurricane in the storeroom of a dubious man’s bodega, “praying, not knowing if she was praying to her mother or to either of the gods.” In “Eyewall,” the narrator confers with her own dead father in the midst of a hurricane, curled in a bathtub. In some cases, Florida itself seems to facilitate the communion, filled to the brim as it is with ghosts and failed ventures. “This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both,” Groff writes in “Above and Below,” which follows the downward spiral of a graduate student denied further funding for her research. “The spirits were loud and unhappy, and filled the place with evil. All them dead Spanish missionaries and snake-bit Seminoles and starved-to-death Crackers and shit.” Such are the refuse of a state that has been abandoned, orphaned, shuffled about, and sliced apart for almost 500 years, longer than any other state. For most of that history, Florida has been a feral, lawless place: Until the late 1960s, the state legislature met only every other year, for a single 60-day session, writes historian Gary Mormino in Florida: Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. It’s a state that’s been ruthlessly cultivated by capital: phosphates poured into its aquifers, concrete into its swamps. And yet it markets itself as a place of natural beauty. But Florida is not a “land of contrasts,” and Groff avoids this flimsy and inaccurate conceit. Instead, she incarnates Florida’s grotesque continuity, warping the line between past and present, spirit and flesh, flourishing and decay. On account of all that collision, a hunger for shelter throbs in many of the stories. It takes the form of a sinkhole that becomes a bell jar for a mother on the brink; a bomb shelter where imagined nuns weather a fiery apocalypse; an empty tub in a windowless bathroom, which, as any Floridian knows, is the safest place to hide during a hurricane. But this search for sanctuary feuds with a love of freedom elsewhere in the collection, sometimes within the very same story. Both Jude and the protagonist of “Above and Below” chide themselves for clinging too much to safety, and the dazed, casually alcoholic mothers who lead most of the stories resent that they are too incompetent to take the risks they crave. We are not safe and we cannot pretend to be, and if Groff has a political objective with these stories, it’s that we as a species have so tightly cocooned ourselves that we cannot address the dangers at hand. Environmental catastrophe looms over Florida, amplifying the anxiety that crackles beneath its stories. Global warming, the death of coral reefs, and the gyres of plastic choking the oceans keep Groff’s characters awake at night. As Floridians, their concerns are well-founded: Their home is uniquely vulnerable to environmental and wildlife degradation, a situation made worse by the corrupt network of old guard conservatives that perennially governs the state. Things will get worse before they get better: Already the third-most-populous state, Florida, for all its weirdness, increasingly attracts immigrants in search of sun, real estate, and low taxes. All of this newness collides with the Southern gentility of North Florida, the Cracker pastoral of the interior, the pastel ostentation of Miami, the crypto-Alabaman of the panhandle, and the Sun Belt suburbia of Tampa and Orlando. They remain as discrete as the bands around a coral snake. Florida remains placeless, inchoate—an easy target for those who would rather be someone else somewhere else, like Grant in “For the God of Love, For the Love of God”: …as soon as he realized he would go up to Michigan alone, leaving behind the incontinent old cat he hated, the shitty linoleum, the scrimping, the buying of bad toilet paper with coupons, Florida and its soul-sucking heat, he felt light. A week ago, when they drove up to the ancient stone house framed in all those grapevines, he knew that this was what he wanted: history, old linen and crystal, Europe, beauty. Amanda didn’t fit. By now, she was so far away from him, he could barely see her. Florida is a place that is easy to hate. Its errors have not yet earned the dignified charm that gilds the flaws of places civilized in earlier centuries. The piss and malfunction of the subway are, in this regard, a price to be paid for all New York has to offer. Florida’s scum is, alternatively, a source of buyer’s remorse. For people like Grant, who is like many people who grew up in Florida, the place is as shallow as its soil, which isn’t even really soil but the gray of ceiling-fan lint that peels off in long, fuzzy worms. It is not a place to put down roots. It is a place to leave. I’ve tried, and I thought I had succeeded until I visited my favorite beach last summer, near the town where I grew up. I saw gummy grass poking through white sand off the Gulf coast, like mildew in the caulking of a tub. It wasn’t normal; I wasn’t normal, if only because I cared. Something had changed—the water, perhaps, poisoned by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the beach itself, which is bound to be remade eventually in the image of its boardwalked counterparts on the Atlantic coast. How dispiriting to see this place change, and how much more dispiriting to care—and so much more deeply than I ever wanted to. “Of all places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself,” Groff writes in “Yport,” the final story. I cannot forget these sentences, which are somehow simultaneously hilarious and shattering, ominous and reassuring. It is this ambivalence that pervades Florida’s stories of the anxious, awkward love the Sunshine State kindles and keeps lit. Groff has grasped the true grotesqueness of Florida, an “Eden of dangerous things” spliced with stinking bodies, living and dead. In her hands, Florida as state and state-of-mind becomes an alembic, cohering these discrete stories as perfectly as if they were written in one sitting, though most of them were published years apart. Florida is so much, perhaps too much. Florida is just enough. In this collection, Groff’s powers transform that glut of vitality into something startlingly precarious and, even to a forsworn Floridian like me, something startling and precious.

Who Is Greek?

1. Last week, Greeks and people of Greek descent around the world commemorated the events of October 28, 1940, a day not remembered as a revolution or victory, but a day of saying no—literally. Called “Oxi Day,” the holiday memorializes the fateful moment when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas curtly said “No” to Mussolini’s plans to invade Greece. In saying no, Metaxas sent his country to war with Fascist Italy, whose army underestimated the tiny but furious Greek military. The Greeks, exhaustion and embittered by recent defeat, rallied and soon astounded the world and routed the Italians back to Albania—a blow that dealt the Axis its first defeat of World War II. Astonished and inspired, the Allied leaders poured forth encomiums on the Greeks, with Winston Churchill famously saying that henceforth, “We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!” Fiercely proud of this day (and of Churchill’s quote in particular), Greeks around the world hold parades and other formal events. For the first time, this year in Athens an Afghan immigrant was supposed to carry the flag at the front of the Athenian parade—a symbol of the sea change to Greek demography after years of global instability and subsequent waves of migration. However, at the last minute, he was asked to carry the school's sign, rather than the flag, and most recently, there have been reports that his home was attacked. What should have been a cause to celebrate the Greekest of Greek things—of voyaging out and coming back and going again—has now become an occasion to examine the way the borders of Greekness are violently policed. Since antiquity, cultures upon cultures have passed through the sieve of Greece, which subsumed them all under a mantel of “Hellene” that’s come to mean so many different things in its three millennia of history. That sieving has never really stopped, certainly not in the last 40 years when Greece became firmly European and, thus, a destination for migrants from Africa, the other Balkan states, and now the Middle East (and Turkey and China, mostly on “golden visas”). At the same time, “ethnic” Greeks have left the country in droves, often unwillingly, to find work. From this perspective, it seems appropriate that this young Afghan boy should be at the helm of the Oxi Day parade. Yet it was bound to be a flashpoint from the beginning: for decades, Greek nationalists like the fascist Golden Dawn party have fumed at “non-Greeks” carrying the blue-and-white, such as when an Albanian student was given the honor, on account of being top of the class. For these fascists, but also for other Greeks who cling to a unitary, essential Greekness, it is unconscionable that a non-Greek would carry the flag on this Greekest of days. After all, Oxi Day was a triumph of Greekness, as Churchill said. In saying so, Churchill inadvertently apprehends a paranoia, a simultaneous pride and shame, a yearning placelessness, a paradox that haunts global Greekness, and that perhaps come into focus in the modern mythmaking of Oxi Day. In the literature of the Greek diaspora, particularly the Greek-American diaspora, these forces come into being clearly, and corroborate much of my own experience. 2. As a queer third-generation Greek-American, I’ve lately felt particularly under the assault of oxi. For one, Australia’s gay marriage plebiscite has dredged up the deeply held but discreet homophobia of some people in the diaspora, a significant portion of which has ties to Australia. That silt thickens the already sludgy waters I’ve waded through my whole life, and, most recently, when I turned to my ancestral Orthodox church for aid in the aftermath of abuse, despite its apathy (or in Russia, outright aggression) toward anyone who isn’t cisgendered and straight. Last month, this apathy became antipathy in Greece when the progressive government simplified the process for trans people to change their legal genders. This double marginalization puts me beyond an Albanian front of identity politics, where I’m quartered with ever more people who are pushed out by the oxi of an essential Greekness. It adds to the experience of being extraneous that I had growing up. I didn’t have the stereotypical Greek-American childhood—the one that comes with supplemental Greek language school, Greek vacations each summer, and spit-roasted lamb spinning in my backyard on Easter Sundays. So when I went to college (one I picked deliberately because of its Modern Greek language program), I committed myself to making up for lost time, and I immediately joined the Greek American Student’s Association, intent on acquiring the Greekness I didn’t really grow up with To mark my debut, I signed up to celebrate Oxi Day with all of the other Greek-Americans, most of whom were, unlike me, the full-blooded, fluent-speaking financiers- and physicians-in-the-making that comprise much of the third and fourth generation Greek diaspora. Together, we painted a mural of the Greek flag on the off-campus wall designated for things like that, embellishing it with quotes and taking selfies while the older students and “off-the-boat Greeks” chatted in fluent Greek I couldn’t understand. No matter to us that other eager student groups would paint over this mural by the next day, at the latest. What we were doing nevertheless had the weight of a sacrament, of summoning up and solemnly honoring Greekness itself. 3. This essentialism—a belief in something like a Platonic form of Greekness—inflects all the received wisdom about who and what is considered Greek. Oxi Day, in particular, operationalizes this idea by turning Metaxas’s rejection of Italy into an outstanding example of an essential Greek spirit—one fatally devoted to the fatherland and to the cultural heritage it generated. A deeper look at the metaphor finds that the first cause of Greekness itself is the land – and not just the territory of the modern Greek state, but also the ancestral possessions across western Anatolia, the Black Sea, Alexandria, and even as far north as the Danube. Nostalgia for the artificially, aggressively erased Greek presence in these places—for example, the city of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey)—and bitterness at the blunders that led to it ache through Greek Diaspora literature. The best example of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, in which the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” is the pretext of the whole story. Calliope/Cal Stephanides’s grandparents (brother and sister) are refugees of the disastrous Greek-Turkish War of the early 1920s, which forced them from their ancestral Anatolian village and straight into the Aegean, where they board a ship as the city of Smyrna burns. Throughout the book, Calliope/Cal comes back to this tale and its implications, and at various points, mentions returning to Anatolia to come full circle, but never does. More specifically, Cal refers to his intersex gene coming full circle, of wanting “to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time.”  The synecdoche shows a fundamental split between being a Greek body and being a Greek subject—a symptom of a mythologized essentialism that makes the task of determining one’s Greekness into one of making maps (identities) fit onto territories (bodies). This synecdoche also shows up in some of David Sedaris’s early work, specifically in the essay, “I Like Guys.” One summer, he travels with his older sister and a gaggle of other young Greek-Americans to a summer camp on a Greek island for “instruction in such topics as folk singing and something called ‘religious prayer and flag.’” There, he planned to “re-invent” himself and perhaps find a girlfriend, putting paid to his emerging gay desire. In reality, he ended up with constipating anxiety, perhaps on account of the performative masculinity of his male roommates, writing he “never once had a bowel movement” during the month-long trip. He also encounters another emerging queer, Jason, who spites David after a too-close-for-comfort bit of tumbling. Joining forces with the other guys, Jason torments David, and then gets a girlfriend himself, “cured.” At the surface, it’s just a funny story of a backfired first foray into gay adolescent sex, but to a Greek-American reader, its coded in a way that almost perfectly inverts Greek-American tropes. The summer camp young David attends with his sister in Greece is almost undeniably the “Ionian Village” summer program, which the Greek Orthodox archdiocese administers for Greek-American kids up through age 18. Here, then, is an instance of the Orthodox Church—a de facto steward of ethnic Greekness—processing the pubescent bodies of diaspora Greeks into idealized Hellenic youths, fed and watered with Greece’s own famous sea and summer light. If that’s its aim, then Ionian Village tends to achieve it, based on what I understand from friends (I never attended). People I know praise it, gushing about how it pulls Greek-American youth together around their shared identity, and I don’t doubt it has influenced more than a handful of alumni to marry one another. In Sedaris’s subversive rewriting of the tale, a queer diaspora Greek body goes to this same place only to awaken an unambiguously homosexual eros that was, prior to the trip, still sealed in the proverbial wine cask like the Aeolian winds. Arriving home, he stares at himself: “I like guys. The words had settled themselves into my features.” The question lingers: did the trip arouse what it was intended to suppress? So while the Greek Establishment effectively said oxi to young David’s queer-bodied Greekness—in the form of marginalization, unrequited love, and prolonged constipation—at the Ionian Village, in writing his story, he too, says oxi to the Establishment contours of Greekness, writing a new possibility for Greek diaspora identity into discourse. 4. The ongoing renegotiation of Greekness in these texts plays out in the lived politics of Greekness, too. For most of recorded history, Greek identity was conferred on Greek speakers who lived a Greek way of life, until it became a slur for pagans and pretenders to Roman glory during the 1,000-year era of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople, it became a collective term for any Christian Ottoman subject. Even in 1923, when the League of Nations brokered the biggest mass population exchange in history between Greece and Turkey, ethnicity was by and large equated with one’s religion. In the almost 100 years since, this reification along linguistic and religious axes left a legacy that still, today, limits the field of Greekness. Ask any diaspora Greek, and you’ll find that “Greekness” almost automatically implies an inherited knowledge of the Greek language and initiation into the (Greek) Orthodox Church. In light of this history, Greekness was already a complex category of identity whose interstices were aggressively policed with negations and denials—with oxi—well before the modern Greek state came into being in 1830 (for the first of several times up through 1974). As the diaspora grows, thanks to the hopefully slowing but still severe brain drain from the neoliberal impact-crater of the Greek economy, its members increasingly come under attack as not Greek enough, even though they—and the support they send back to Greece—have been deemed essential to the economic recovery of the country. Even within the diaspora itself, it’s easy to encounter one arbitrator of authentic Greekness or another, someone who’s eager to say oxi to your claim to a part of your identity you never asked for, but that’s there all the same—one that you might even love. Often these oxis come down to one’s mastery of the notoriously difficult and poorly standardized Greek language, to one’s number and intensity of immediate family or business connections to Greece, and even to one’s genealogical Greekness. Whatever the goalpost may be, it seems to be migrating more often than not. 5. All the instability and policed permeability of modern Greekness manifest distinctly in Oxi Day. The event that’s today celebrated as a shining moment in Greek history starts to break down with a sober look at the facts of what actually happened in 1940. It’s true that historians mark the event as the first Allied victory for the war, and credit it with averting the German army from an early attack on Russia. In retrospect, then, it’s tempting to read Oxi Day as the day a strategic Iphigenia was sacrificed on a Greek altar. However, at the time, Metaxas’s choice to say no made for a particularly brutal period in Greek history that’s still paying dividends. While the German army was surprised by the Greek resistance (Adolf Hitler later commended the Greeks for putting up the best fight so far), the Germans eventually broke through the Greek front and ultimately established control over the rocky little country. Installing a puppet government in Athens, the Germans instituted a brutal regime of reprisal killings for extortion, and contributing to the loss of 10 percent of the population by the end of the war—the highest of any state in Europe. In that sense, Metaxas’s defiant oxi was a Pyrrhic victory, a catastrophic election of principle over expediency whose consequences are still visible in Greek demands for German reparations, which still float to the surface from time to time. Furthermore, it was not the valiant attempt of a good-hearted philosopher-king to shield the embers of democracy from fascism. By most accounts, Metaxas himself was a fascist who admired Mussolini’s strong-man politics and who was also an aspirational führer who seized absolute power over Greece through maneuvers more commonly associated with Hitler himself. Neither was the Greece he ruled at the time a haven of democracy. First of all it was a monarchy, and had been so (off and on) since its liberation a century earlier, when a Bavarian boy-king became the first head of the new Greek state. The monarchy had recently been restored, and in 1940 symbolically ruled through Metaxas over a crippled Greece still reeling from the loss of ancestral Hellenic territory in 1923. By 1940, it had become a tiny synthetic nation swollen with Anatolian Greeks who spoke different dialects of Greek, and perhaps no Greek at all—far from the golden Hellenic homeland rhapsodized in the mythology of Oxi Day. What’s more is that he never even said oxi on that morning. Speaking in French, he tersely stated, “Well, we’ll have a war,” and it was only later that outraged citizens began chanting oxi in the streets. Today, in other streets and other countries, under the essential Greekness that’s paraded on Oxi Day there is a complicated, contradictory identity constantly in a state of panic, an ongoing oxi volley between self and other. While these dynamics don’t do much in the way of distilling an original, essential Greekness, I do think there is something essential to Oxi Day. It’s not so much an innate Hellenic spirit as it is the mutative mythmaking that’s made it possible for people of all kinds to be able to call themselves Greek across the millennia. The details of Oxi Day congeal into a myth that points to something more than memory or fact. By virtue of this power, myth might be the greatest legacy of the Greeks and the most productive of Greek ruses: it motivates the search for truths, essences, Platonic forms of things like Greekness. Those searches bear material fruit in the form of art and cultural artifacts, like the complex literature of the Greek diaspora, some of whose writers wrestle in their stories with the myth of Greekness, working out an answer on the queer bodies of characters who identify as Greek differently from how they are supposed to. When confronted with the rubric of mythic Greekness, they respond firmly with oxi, opening up space in the sprawling field of Greekness for another new identity. In doing so, they show how Greekness’s longevity never came from its essence, rather, from its porousness. This seems poignant, and perhaps emblematic: at the site of ancient Delphi, the omphalos, the “navel of the world,” a wall of oddly shaped polygons, interlocked without any mortar, had endured earthquakes and the erosion of centuries. Almost everything else has been crumbled or carted away to museums, where, for Greeks and non-Greeks alike, they signify the things we used to have, but don’t anymore. Image Credit: Wikipeda