With “Florida,’’ her second story collection, Lauren Groff has followed up a novel so successful that even President Obama endorsed it. That book, “Fates and Furies,’’ published in the relatively gentle year of 2015, made seemingly every best-of list and became a rare literary bestseller. It enraptured readers and critics (most of them, anyway) with a twisty account of an imperfect marriage told through the wildly different perspectives of its participants.
Women writers, focusing as they often do on matters domestic, tend to be dismissed; great American fiction, some contend, must engage more universal (read: macho) terrain, like war, the global economy, or baseball. Even when ladies tackle the heavy stuff, they are patted on the head for writing against type, as evidenced in a Guardian interview with Curtis Sittenfeld that praised her political novel, “American Wife,’’ for accomplishing “something even harder than applying intelligence to chick lit.”
“Fates and Furies’’ managed to mostly evade such superannuated literary standards thanks in no small part to critics mindful of the biases stacked up against domestic fiction — the kind not written by Philip Roth, anyway (R.I.P.). The novelist Robin Black, writing in The New York Times, emphasized the facility with which Groff imbued the subject of marriage with elephantine weight, resulting in what she described as “a perfect vehicle for exploring no less than the nature of existence.”
As Groff shows in her 11 stories, the state of Florida — dismissed by many Northerners as a place of mass shootings, retirees, and arch-conservatism — can also be a perfect vehicle for exploring the nature of existence when Groff’s writing about it. In this superlative collection — seriously, there’s not a dud in the bunch — Florida is a “damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things.” It also becomes a stand-in for everything from the class divide to an indifferent universe to environmental collapse to personal entropy to the glory of the natural world.
Groff manages, in fact, to do something even harder than conveying universal truths through such an ostensibly unpromising setting: She does so through the lens of women in middle age. Yes, Virginia, wives and mothers can convey a full range of human ideation.
The unnamed narrator of “Ghosts and Empties,” the first story, takes endless walks so as to avoid yelling at her husband and small sons. The tableaux she peeps on during these journeys neatly lay out the subsequent stories’ themes, particularly that of well-earned, barely contained hysteria. The woman passes a small convent that suggests life without sexual currency, while the house of a therapist who has slept with his patient’s wife evokes male hubris and sexual violence. Fixer-uppers purchased by white, middle-class gentrifiers and empty plazas vacated by pushed-out black indigents conspire to make the reader keenly aware of the social turmoil roiling even in the quietest American neighborhoods and those trying to make a life there. “It’s too much, it’s too much,” the narrator shouts, and the reader has no choice but to shout along with her.
Thematic coherence aside, “Ghosts and Empties” is an outlier; “Florida’’ is no Millhauserian survey of suburban quirk. Subsequent stories have more perilous settings and arcs as meaty as that of most novels. This traditional bent might surprise those who loved “Fates and Furies’’ for its deeply weird Greek chorus, but it will leave them no less satisfied.
In lieu of an omniscient commentator, Groff proffers events so terrifying as to be almost supernatural. Waters churn. Houses collapse. Antediluvian horrors prowl the dark. Such threats require her characters to confront the truth of their existence. In “Salvador,” a middle-aged woman takes an annual tropical vacation from Florida and her responsibilities caring for her ailing mother; a frightening storm forces her to consider her mortality and life choices. “For the Love of God, For the Love of God” places two middle-aged best friends — from Florida, natch — in a French villa with their husbands, both awful each in his own way; a serious downpour brings long-suppressed feelings to the surface. As 21st century women, the length of a story is often enough to get some insight far quicker than any Shakespearean king who might find himself in a similar situation. In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” a wrenching coming-of-age story containing one of the collection’s few male perspectives, a boy left alone in a cabin surrounded by snakes becomes a man out to sea, both literally and figuratively.
Groff is an extra terrific writer, as ever, particularly when describing the animalizing effects of these calamities on her protagonists. An injured woman feels her husband’s fear as “cold sun” on the “silk of [her] pelt.” A woman trapped in a hurricane communes with her favorite chicken, crushed against the glass of her window, “eye to lizardly eye.” In “Dogs Go Wolf,” what would have been an apt titular story and a real stunner, two little girls trapped on an island slowly starve. The smaller girl fibs about eating some verboten bananas, claiming to have seen a “tiny, tiny monkey” with “fingers like person fingers.”
It’s too much. With this book, Groff has joined the annals of great 21st century Florida fiction: Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia,’’ James Hannaham’s “God Says No,’’ and John Brandon’s “Citrus County.’’ Having followed an astonishing, astonishingly accessible novel with such an outstanding, accessible collection, Groff is surely poised to topple the tiny monkeys in charge of deciding that the perceived realm of the feminine isn’t sufficiently deep.
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead, 275 pp., $27
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