Florida is “an Eden of dangerous things,” writes Lauren Groff in her short-story collection about survival in the turbulent Sunshine State. This past month, as one of their Book Club picks, Masthead members discussed Florida in the forums. The conversation focused on the way the stories’ narrator worries about and yet avoids responding to crises. Some members found the character unlikable for her inaction. Here’s an excerpt of her voice from the story “Yport.”
It’s true that the world is overrun with terrorists. It’s true that the mother no longer goes to movies in theaters, and she scans for the exits in restaurants. Deeper, worse, the death everywhere, the surgical strikes, the eyes in the sky. Aleppo in the beautiful before, the ravaged after. She puts these thoughts away. If she could, she’d spend the entire day in bed.
The Atlantic culture critic Sophie Gilbert, who reviewed Florida, joined us to discuss the value of reading how flawed characters cope with witnessing terrible events. It’s a timely topic, as the news can often feel, for many, full of tribulations.
“Wherever You Go, There You Are”
A lightly edited conversation with forum users and the Atlantic culture critic Sophie Gilbert. Members are cited by their usernames.
Reading a book, to me, is like spending time with people. If I don’t like the characters, why do I want to spend time with these people? — tkeiter, Masthead member
Sophie: I recently went to see Lauren Groff discuss Florida in London and she made a point of emphasizing several times that the unnamed writer who narrates many of these stories is not her. The writer might have much in common with her—two sons, an ambiguous relationship with Florida itself, a heritage in the Northeast—but she maintains that that’s partly a trick to deceive readers.
Which made me curious: Why? Maybe there’s freedom in creating a writerly persona who’s you but not you. It does allow you to worry less about whether you’re likable, or how people respond to you. It lets you express yourself in a way that you otherwise might not. I find the construction of the “writer” character one of the most interesting parts of the collection for sure (because when I read it, I absolutely assumed that the writer was Groff).
Personally, I find flawed characters more interesting to read. Groff’s narrators, while not always likable, are recognizable. Sure, they can be selfish, or angry, or anxious at times. But like Sophie, I find myself sympathizing with them nonetheless. Creating such characters is difficult for any writer because it requires, among other things, a keen awareness of one’s own flaws and how they affect others. But I’m guessing the process of writing itself enables Groff to analyze herself and the world around her a little bit better. — Tanvi Misra, CityLab staff writer
Sophie: I love this comment about flawed characters being more interesting. In television at least, men have been flawed for decades—no one ever complains about Walter White being pitifully insecure and pompous or Don Draper being arrogant. When I interviewed the writer Gillian Flynn for a story earlier this year, she said she couldn’t care less whether characters are likable. She cares whether they’re interesting. And Groff, I think, feels the same way. (There are also interesting similarities in the structures of Groff’s previous book, Fates and Furies, and Gone Girl that I’d love to have a week to get into. But basically, you get to know a woman from a man’s perspective first, and then you discover that her interior self is someone completely different and completely misunderstood by the man closest to her.)
I found reading Florida a very flat experience for me, emotionally. —Barb_Didrichsen, Masthead member
Sophie: The feeling you describe seems to be the state of mind the unnamed writer has in so many of the stories. Not a state of profound despair; more like a dull anxiety that pervades everything. Her descriptions are so vivid and teeming with life, but her interior state seems to be so flat and anxious and numbed. So I don’t blame you at all for responding to that with a similar lack of enthusiasm.
What’s most remarkable to me in these stories is the narrator’s inability or unwillingness to act, to take action, to make something happen. All she can do is play defense, protect herself and her children, check the windows and doors—and hope nothing bad, or worse, will happen. — markburris, Masthead member
Sophie: This is right on the nose. I read the “writer” as being in the midst of a kind of existential crisis, consumed with anxiety about the state of the world and finding pleasure or security in basically nothing. And there’s a kind of paralysis in that, even when she goes to France in one of the stories. (“Wherever you go, there you are.”)
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