BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

“There’s room for expansion,” Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
“We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,” Otto said, squinting at the page. “Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.”

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That line about the black nail, coming in the first paragraph like that, stood out to me. I kept thinking about it; these aren’t city kids in a Brooklyn loft hoping to be discovered. Why would a farm guy would think another farm guy would be using black nail polish? It couldn’t be a throwaway line, not featured so prominently; no editor would stand for that. As I was reading the story, I kept making notations about public and private; it seemed like the crux of the story. But I think that’s a subordinate theme. The whole story is in that opening discussion: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s natural, what’s artificial about these people, and who’s kidding whom about the relationships among them?

It took me a while to figure out who was who. Otto and Heddy are siblings who are functionally parent and child. Heddy and Peter are… to call them lovers or engaged feels too romanticized, too deliberate; they’re basically kids who found themselves pregnant, so Peter moved in and they’ll get married at some point. “Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall” kind of sums it up, and creeps me out.

Peter feels the most familiar to me. He’s bewildered and a bit unsure of himself and his role in the family and on the farm, but he seems to have a straightforward, honest outlook. Except that he kind of read Heddy’d diary and stole her idea about setting up a website for the farm, a transgression that seems to bother him more than it bothers Heddy, if she’s even aware of it.

At the start of the story, Heddy, all of eighteen going on twelve, is starting junior college, armed with an array of notebooks and variously colored pens and ready to figure out how to cover her textbooks with paper bags, studying French and salsa dancing, going swimming in the afternoons for “low-impact exercise”. Turns out, she’s a lot better at getting ready to go to school than she is at school.

Which plays into the path of the story: I know nothing about life on a small Northern California farm, but I do know that change is hard, especially when you’re in a family that’s determined to maintain the status quo. As with the diary reading, whether Heddy’s aware or not is ambiguous; it’s Peter who realizes his vision of moving into their own place with “curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself” is a fantasy, that they’re going to be living down the hall from Otto for the forseeable future.

And oh, by the way, Arcadia is the mythic Greek land of natural perfection – and the home of the libidinous woodland god Pan.

Then I come back to the black fingernail. Peter, the point-of-view character and observer/processor, doesn’t attach value to the options, whether it’s artifice, accident, or the remnants of a wound. He just notices, and presents the picture of Otto and Heddy for us to sort out.

4 responses to “BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

  1. I think you may be right that real/fake is a secondary issue here. I think the main event’s right there in the opening sentence: “room to grow.” It’s a story about disappointed hopes. Peter is also dreaming that he and Heddy have room to grow; Heddy is thinking college will expand her mind. It’s all the things America puts its trust in: clean, local agro will stop us from polluting the world. Education will make use better, etc. But we all kind of have aggression issues as a country to work out. We’re all drunk Otto looking for a fight and a fuck. Am I reading it too much as an allegory of America? I could probably dial back the one-to-one lining up of details from the story, but I still think this is probably a commentary on American optimism.

    • Sure, that works – I was going more for interpersonal relationships, but expanding to a broader canvas is a good idea. What’s more quintessentially Americana than “the family farm” – or, what most of us think of when we think of the family farm (Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan sitting on their beautiful porch at night after a productive day plowing corn and setting up the baseball team…).

      • Try This: ARCADIA BY EMMA CLINE 

        “Arcadia” is a word suggesting a kind of magical realm in the country (including Fauns, The god Pan, and other mythical beings). In literature, it is a place
        to which people travel, and from which they return to the “normal” world–considerably changed. Stories set in an Arcadian world have always existed (most noticeably in Shakespeare’s comedies). How does this title apply to Ms. Cline’s story? The setting is a kind of Arcadia, complete with a bacchanall (see below) and with characters passing through it and coming out different in both their relationships and their senses of themselves.

        “This story is about …” – finish that thought in one sentence. (Not an assignment, just a jumping off point in thinking about the story.)
        See the above.

        Is there friction? What’s that about? There is underlying friction, despite which these characters remain surprisingly friendly with one another and their lives. Yes, there is underlying friction–between Otto and Peter, between the “college” world and the farmer’s world, between the farm-owning family and the laborers, between staying in north-western California–but things still work out pretty well, everything considered.

        Who are these characters? Do we know what motivates them to act as they do? The way they act is determined (in part) by their author so that they fit into “Arcadian” architypes (See definition above).

        As usual, think about what words best describe Peter, Heddy, and Otto.
        A note: I assume “Otto” is a German name; “Heddy” could be German also (short for Hedwig–see “Hedy Lamarr”)

        What role do we have as readers of the story? I see no difference between this and any other story. We readers try to figure out what it’s about, what its themes are, and how it is constructed so as to drive them home.

        Is there any aspect that shows that this story was written by a woman?
        Not much, although women play an important part in the story and Peter, who is exceptionally sensitive to the world and people around him (Think of the red worm) has what might be called a “feminine” sensibility.  

        Note: Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, based on various ecstatic elements of the god Dionysus (the Roman name for the Greek god named “Bacchus.” They are said (by Wikipedia) to have been popular, and well-organized, throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula.

        See statue of Bacchus above *

        Take off your clothes and have a drink

        Final note: I know thw aria of this story well. Chico, California, where we lived for a good 35 years, was about a two-hour drive away from Sonoma, California. In which there is a state college much like the one Heddy attends.

      • Hi eb – are you responding to a reader’s guide, or questions from a class assignment? I like the questions. I don’t see any indication it was written by a woman either, but I rarely do; there are all kinds of gender-determining software sites, but they rely on subtle cues, like the use of the word “you” and other pronouns. Weird, when you think about it. And they’re not terribly reliable.
        It’s always interesting to think about how it affects your reading when you’re from an area in the story – or when it concerns a character in your career, or any number of different intersections with the real-life reader. Sometimes there’s an automatic affinity, leading to greater appreciation; sometimes there’s a tendency to nitpick on details that might not seem completely accurate. It sounds like your experience was the former.
        This was one of my favorite stories from this volume. Cline has a story in the 2018 volume as well, a very different story, one that didn’t really work for me (Jake had better luck, see his blog).
        Keep reading!

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