Florida, the newest book from the transcendent writer Lauren Groff (Arcadia, Fates and Furies), isn’t a short-story collection so much as an ecosystem. Within its boundaries, panthers prowl, snakes abound, Spanish moss dangles “like armpit hair,” children are abandoned to turn strange and almost feral, and storms batter so hard they leave bruises. The line between humankind and nature blurs. Groff’s environment is so sentient it seems to breathe; smells are “exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.” But her characters are passive, watchful, having long ago learned the futility of fighting the elements.
Florida, in Florida, is more than a state. It’s a state of mind. It’s an encumbrance, drowning bodies in humidity. It’s a violent partner, constantly erupting. It’s “a damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things.”
As a collection, Florida is as eerie and ominous as it’s exquisite. Groff, a native northeasterner, moved to the state more than a decade ago after her husband took over his family’s business, and her stories are suffused with a sense of wonder and dread regarding her new habitat. It can feel intensely personal in moments—five out of the 11 stories are narrated by an unnamed writer with two sons who perceives the landscape around her with acute anxiety. But Groff’s writing is so evocative and so sharp that Florida’s sense of apprehension becomes intoxicating. A hurricane, thrashing a garden, makes the lawn shiver and sends “unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.” Children are “creamy as cheeses.” A woman, crushed by debt, is described as “slithering” out from beneath it, like a snake emerging from under a rock.
If there’s a unifying theme, it’s survival, but that concept means different things to the different characters Groff creates. In the first story, “Ghosts and Empties” (named for a line in the title song on Paul Simon’s Graceland), the aforementioned writer goes for a walk in her neighborhood and narrates her surroundings. Having “somehow become a woman who yells,” she stifles her rage by lacing on her running shoes at night and walking. As she strides, “feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows.” But the neighborhood, which Groff describes with characteristic precision as “imperfectly safe,” hosts larger dangers. Only recently, a jogger in her 50s was dragged off the street and raped among the azaleas. A husband found his wife sleeping with his therapist and shot them both; the therapist survived. And the writer’s narration describes her ongoing panic about the violence being inflicted upon the environment, “the glaciers dying like living creatures,” and “the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species.”
In Florida, the natural world is teeming with terrors: coral snakes, alligators, sinkholes, extreme and ferocious weather. And yet the stories tend to favor this wildness against the contrast of civilization, with its uniform condo buildings, its drugstore “aisles of gaudy trash and useless wrapping and plastic pull tabs that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle.” The more developed Groff’s landscape becomes, the wilder her characters get, as if to compensate. In the most haunting story in the collection, “Dogs Go Wolf,” two young girls are abandoned on an island. As they slowly starve, their bodies get closer and closer to nature, until the elder sister imagines them both “turned into sunlight and dust.”
This precarious teetering between states recurs in Florida. In “Above and Below,” an academic slides into homelessness. At first, being evicted feels to her like a holiday from care: She sleeps in her station wagon and reads Middlemarch by penlight. But destitution inches up on her, bit by bit. In “Salvador,” a woman is forced to wait out a storm in a store with a predatory and leering grocer. Her confinement is full of dread; she waits for the inevitability of his advances. What’s less clear is that he’s saved her life.
It’s hard not to read this uneasy contract as a metaphor for Groff’s own feelings about Florida. Existential anxiety pervades the collection, seeping into observations about Halloween and cabin weekends and the naturalist William Bartram. The recurring writer wonders if her children will be the last generation on Earth, and lists the threats that her elder son faces if he goes outside: “terrible men, sinkholes, alligators, the end of the world.” The savagery of the natural world is echoed by the cruelty humans inflict on each other, and on themselves. Characters commit suicide, spouses cheat, a herpetologist wrests his son from the arms of his departing mother. And yet Groff provides occasional flashes forward that stave off despair, giving some reassurance that a few souls might make it after all.
There are a handful of stories set outside Florida. The writer takes her two sons to France on a trip to research Guy de Maupassant, and France appears again in the least satisfying story, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” in which a married couple visits friends who live outside Paris. There’s something about the overripe, cloying oppression of the Floridian climate that brings a magical realism to Groff’s work, a connection with nature that makes her departures from the state more sterile. Florida, the author realizes in “Flower Hunters,” enables writers to be sensual, alive, “full animal.” The state she finds herself in, the state she finds herself in, is as erotic as it’s unnerving.
Groff is by no means the first writer to find literary power in the Sunshine State. Florida, Kristen Arnett wrote in Literary Hub last year, “has always been a place that scares people,” sour with “poison and rot and choking vines. You fight for the right to live in its greenery, and once you’ve finally carved out a space, you stay tangled in the wreck.” The state’s thriving, algal, creeping spirit is home to writers like Jeff VanderMeer, whose Southern Reach trilogy depicts an alien landscape of terrifying beauty and metamorphosis. It fostered the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose work often gives nature a mystical power. Groff’s stories, turbulent and enthralling, are similarly “dazzled by the frenzied flora and fauna” of Florida, hyperalert to its dangers, and charged by its vitality.