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“Contradictions can be true at once”: On Lauren Groff’s Work and New Novel “Matrix”

“Contradictions can be true at once”: On Lauren Groff’s Work and New Novel “Matrix”

  • A feature essay on Lauren Groff's work and new novel, "Matrix."

If Lauren Groff’s previous publications came to life for a photo shoot, Fates & Furies would elbow its way to the foreground. Since President Obama chose it as his favourite 2015 book, Groff’s third novel has claimed centre stage.

To one side, dressed for success, would be the story collections—Delicate Edible Birds (2009) and Florida (2018)—one with remarkable origin stories (like publications in Ploughshares and The Atlantic) and the other sporting a National Book Award Finalist seal.

On the other side, the debut praised by Stephen King—2008’s The Monsters of Templeton, shiny-faced and insistent—perched alongside its follow-up Arcadia (2012), pockets bulging with “Year’s Best” listings and rave reviews.

Impressive—and then 2021’s Matrix bustles onto the scene and eclipses these worthy predecessors. As the imagined story of twelfth-century poet Marie de France, Matrix—from the Latin ‘mater’ for mother—is simultaneously ambitious and unremarkable. Ambitious for revisioning a medieval woman’s life, but unremarkable given Groff’s experience weaving stories from history and imagination.

Consider the heroine’s family home in The Monsters of Templeton: a 1793 cottage with one wing dating to the Victorian era and the other to the 1970s. Though a work-in-progress, the building’s lifetimes can be “traced like bones on an X-ray”; Willie’s past, raised by a single mother, also seems clear initially, but proves complicated.

Willie shares her “understood” family tree with readers early on, then employs her recent archaeological training and unearths letters, photographs, and documents to assemble her “Massively Revised Genealogy”. Willie creates her present-day identity by deconstructing her personal memories and her family’s mythology.

Groff’s author’s note explains her simultaneous creative development too. Having expected to transcribe her hometown story about Cooperstown, New York faithfully to the page, “a curious thing happened”; the more she learned, “the more the facts drifted from their moorings,” and soon she was writing a “slantwise version”.

This “slantwise” perspective resurfaces in Delicate Edible Birds (2009). First, when stories weave fact and fiction like “L. DeBard and Aliette” set in the wake of WWI and in the face of influenza, the title story set during WWII in a Paris hotel, and “Majorette,” set partly in 1951 and moving through an era of anti-war sentiment: “This is how a life falls into place.”

She knocks contemporary short stories off-kilter too. By virtue of displaying darkness, like the underwater abyss in “Watershed” or the place “where trees scrape forklike against the sky” in “Fugue.” And by acknowledging that rearranging narrative elements alters outcomes: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.” (“Lucky Chow Fun”) As does inhabiting a particular perspective, like in “Blythe”: “My husband tells me I romanticize those years.”

Perspective is the heart of Groff’s next two novels. In Arcadia (2012), readers wholly inhabit a single point-of-view. Because Bit is too young to accurately assess the goings-on at the upstate-New-York commune his parents joined, readers share his emotional experience without context and participate in the sense of a narrative being shaped. His personal mythology is different from Winnie’s, but the creative process is similar: “The memory clings to him, told by Arcadia until it became communal, told again and again until the story grew inside him to become Bit’s own.”

In Fates and Furies (2015), readers inhabit Lotto’s and Mathilde’s points-of-view: bisecting the narrative seems an ideal way to present disparate marital experiences but, ironically, it emphasizes their distinct, isolated experiences.

An idea expressed in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” a short story in Groff’s Florida (2018) reflects this succinctly: “He would never know her; knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud.” Each narrator in Fates and Furies engages in acts of self- and other-assembly mirroring Willie’s and Bit’s.

Yearning for connection is an undercurrent throughout Groff’s work: “When your family dismisses you, like Lotto’s did, you create your own family.” Whether small-town residents or summer-holiday travellers, whether the commune of Arcadia or the couple in Fates and Furies—all these characters inhabit their own slantwise spaces.

Mathilde kicks predictability off the path: “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” Dylan describes the explosion for Bit in Arcadia: “It went boom.” And in “Yport”, the last story in Florida(2018), a mother witnesses a cataclysm diverted as her younger son holds a rock above a snail: “Boom, he whispers, but he keeps his arm in the air. And he holds his fingers closed.”

Other disasters are avoided too. In Florida’s opening story, “Ghosts and Empties”, the narrator walks at night and observes backlit lives, including “one mostly windowless place” housing nuns—once six but “attrition happened” and now three. Their yard includes a bomb shelter and “I like to imagine the nuns in full regalia in their shelter, singing hymns and spinning of a stationary bike to keep the lightbulb sputtering on, while, aboveground, all has been blasted black and rusted hinges rasp the wind.”

The sequestered lives that Groff imagines in Matrix (2021) predate this fantastical image by nearly a millennium, but if the nuns were immortals, Marie would ride the bicycle. Groff imagines her to be as powerful as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who banishes Marie to an abbey.

Though the English Queen presents it as an opportunity, Marie experiences “endless work and prayer and hunger” and recognizes “this place of her living death” as a true threat to her existence. First, Groff deftly situates readers in the twelfth century via Marie’s visceral experiences; she secures readers in another time with terms like ‘pudenda’ and ‘calumny’, and abbey vocabulary like ‘dortoir’ and ‘matins’ whispers of a place apart. Marie’s story unfolds over decades, but the prose is unencumbered; Groff details some experiences and summarizes others to organically engage readers: “Time compresses, springs forward.”

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Tension resides in everyday interactions, even hostility: “Decades thick, and visible, like the rings in a felled tree.” These women are “self-sufficient, entire unto themselves” but the abbey’s structure is hierarchical. Internally, Marie wrestles—like Willie and Bit and Mathilde—with familiar narratives, demanding “why should she, who felt her greatness hot in her blood, be considered lesser because the first woman was molded from a rib and ate a fruit and thus lost lazy Eden?”

Marie upends her narrative and recasts archetypes, so when she yearns for her beloved river in Le Maine, France, she imagines it “muscular as a vast serpent” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many snakes in Florida’s short stories too; surprisingly, there is a sea serpent elsewhere in Groff’s oeuvre, though identifying her lair would be spoilery).

The novices and young nuns in Matrix assemble a play which they call “the Virtues and the Vices” that sounds like it could fit with the oeuvre of dramatic works excerpted in Fates and Furies. And when the security of the abbey is threatened, the staff unites to rewrite the dominant narrative: “They cannot allow the story to be told in the larger world that it is even slightly pregnable, or else the whole point of all that work and ingenuity, that great flood of money, loses its—well, Marie says after a pause, it loses its effectiveness.”

Because much to Queen Eleanor’s surprise, Marie does consolidate power. She recognizes “events of the world, seen in the distance like a dark cloud in a clear sky” but, even more importantly, realizes that “most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves”.

Astute and tenderly devastating, Matrix embodies startling relevance for 21st-century readers. Marie orders substantial changes to the abbey’s lands, raising questions about control and progress and interdependence: “She sees only the human stamp upon the place. She considers it good.” Then she pushes her agenda further, damming a waterway: “She made this, she blocked the bowl and filled it with water. She feels the radiance in her hands, her feet, in her gut.”

Even in Groff’s first novel, her characters have been capable of recognizing that radiance, when some night swimmers observe a circular streak of stars and feel the tremendous depths below. In Arcadia, Bit sometimes finds himself “squeezed under a new astonishment” while the “universe pulses outward at impossible speeds.” In Matrix, “The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

Here, readers witness behaviour patterns of violence and wonder, of havoc and beauty, of exploitation and possibility in a historical context. And Marie’s observation—“Contradictions can be true at once”—remains true today. Whether her reassurance holds true as well—“Such comfort in knowing all the old cycles will turn again”—that depends on how we determine to shape the narrative of this 21st-century world. On which story we allow to claim the foreground.

By Lauren Groff
Riverhead Books
Published September 7, 2021

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