“Ghosts and Empties,” the opening story of Lauren Groff’s collection Florida, short-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction (a second for Groff), is narrated by a seemingly depressed mother with two young sons. (With this character trio as a template for many of the other stories, it becomes hard to ignore that Groff herself is the mother of two young sons.) The first-person narrator in “Ghosts and Empties” takes twilight walks around her Florida neighborhood to burn off frustration with we-don’t-quite-know-what; motherhood and life in general it seems, an existential dread. At one point we get a bit of chronic tension when she finds something on her husband’s laptop that upsets her, but it seems the husband might have done whatever he did in response to the woman’s frustrated persona rather than his actions being responsible for her frustration in the first place. The story is composed mainly out of images the nameless narrator sees on her walks over the course of months, some recurring and evolving from dark in nature to more hopeful–a fat boy continuously running on a treadmill eventually becomes svelte; an old house that some old nuns move out of after one dies becomes the site of a grandly illuminated old oak tree. One initial image, an old woman walking a Great Dane, deteriorates when the woman starts to waste away from presumable cancer, but the story ending with the grand old oak tree gives the piece an overall hopeful lilt.
The collection’s finale, the novella-length “Yport,” continues the trend that carries through the collection of balancing a mood of dread tinged with hope, while also seeming to underpin Groff’s credo from her “By the Book” interview with the New York Times Book Review about the gender politics of literature. Aside from the mother with two sons for a narrator, “Yport” bears similarities to another story in the collection, “Flower Hunters,” in that the depressed female protagonist with two sons has become preoccupied with a male literary figure, the “early naturalist” William Bartram in the latter, and the French writer Guy de Maupassant in the former. But “Yport” seems more appropriate to end the collection with due to its more extended development of the male literary figure’s persona as well as its structure being a literal journey (in “Flower Hunters” the protagonist spends the bulk of the story simply reading in her house before she has an epiphany concerning her paranoia about a sinkhole in her yard). It seems significant that the final story in the collection called “Florida” does not actually take place there like almost all the rest do (like “Yport,” ”For the God of Love, for the Love of God” takes place entirely in France). The protagonist of “Yport,” nameless and referred to throughout the story as “the mother,” is from Florida but is escaping the oppressive heat of its summer, along with that mounting existential dread the reader will be intimately familiar with by this point in the collection.
“Yport” begins with the “the mother” deciding to take her two sons to France for the month of August in order to do research on Guy de Maupassant, though she seems to be using this as an excuse to escape Florida. She became attached to Maupassant as a foreign-exchange student in Nantes. Her sons, six and four, differ in temperament but don’t resist going. They spend the first week in Paris, where she puts off visiting the asylum where Guy died of syphilis. They then drive to the town of Yport on the Normandy coast, where Guy was born, though she gets lost on the way. Waiting on the beach to check in to their rental, she thinks that the young Guy who lived there is the only iteration of Guy that she loves. A smelly older man named Jean-Paul shows them to their dirty house. On their way home from the grocery, they get lost (again) for awhile. At home after the boys are asleep, she drinks and fails to write and thinks about Guy’s concept of doubles before watching the seagulls outside her bedroom window. They visit Étretat, a town where Guy lived close to his mother, and, after her sons order a dessert with the same name as a Flaubert novel, she thinks about Guy’s relationship with Flaubert, who was his mentor. They have to take stairs without rails down steep cliffs, and she wonders why she’s put her children in this dangerous position for a writer she finds “morally repugnant.” Back in Yport that night she sees the silhouette of a man in the door’s window who knocks but leaves when she doesn’t answer. She and the boys start swimming at the beach, where a disdainful British couple tells her the younger one is anxious due to some questions he asked them. Later, she watches out her window as the seagulls peck a sickly gull among them to death. They go to a megastore for groceries and try and fail to get in touch with her husband. Someone keeps taking the glass wine bottles out of her trash and leaving them on her front step. Jean-Paul comes to talk to them briefly while they’re on the beach. The older son upsets the younger one when he tells him the mussels they’re eating were once alive. She dreams a large seagull is in the room and in the morning discovers there’s actually bird poop on the floor, and she hopes he’s not unnaturally cruel. They visit the town of Fécamp, and when she mentions Guy, her son says he hates him and she realizes she’s hated Guy ever since reading about him sexually assaulting a young man with some friends and not caring when the man died three days later. When her sons, bored of Yport, are too glum to ride the carousel, she gives their tickets away to some children who turn out to be the ticket-taker’s kids, and they don’t get to ride. She finally gets wifi and learns that a good, kind friend killed himself, and she knows the dread she tried to escape by coming to Yport has found her. Before returning to Paris, they visit Dieppe, where Guy was born, and stay in a chateau, and the mother thinks of Guy’s mother outliving her two sons after they died of syphilis, and realizes that she herself never belonged in France, that she belongs in Florida. But moments that stick out to her more from the trip are when she figures out where to recycle glass, when Jean-Paul knocks on the door at midnight to give her a poem he wrote about her, and when, on the beach, as her older boy is wandering away, the younger one asks her about a meteor and raises and holds a rock over a snail. The End.
Five of the collection’s eleven stories feature the mother with two sons; given the length of “Yport,” it seems fair to say that half the book is dedicated to this seemingly autobiographical character. It’s possible to read the mothers in these five stories as distinct characters with very similar characteristics, since none of the characters, mother, sons, or husband, is ever named, but a closer look reveals clues that these stories are in fact about the same mother with the same family: the beginning of “Yport” references “the unlit streets where she walks her dread for hours late at night,” “Snake Stories” mentions “I have missed my walks late at night,” and “The Midnight Zone” notes that “Motherhood meant, for me, that I would take the boys on monthlong adventures to Europe, teach them to blast off rockets, to swim for glory” (emphasis mine).
“Yport,” then, offers us the conclusion of this particular character’s existential journey, the one that “Ghosts and Empties” hints will be a repetitive cycle of ups and downs. An interesting development about this character that we get in “Yport” is her profession, which we’re shown in the line:
Then she wants to say that, oh, Christ, of course she knows, the condescension Europeans shower on Americans is not always warranted; she’s a novelist, which is tantamount to being a one-woman card catalogue for useless knowledge. (emphasis mine)
But throughout the text this character is not defined by this role nearly as much as she’s defined by her role as mother, even if she tells herself she’s in France for a writing project. We hear little to nothing about her career or long-term concerns, and much more about her daily activities and the course her dread charts through them. As her career and feelings about it remain obscured, so is the question of how much of her dread is a product of being a mother, a question raised rather than answered.
In “Yport,” this character, now designated “the mother” after existing in three of her other iterations as a first-person narrator and once as a third-person narrator referred to only as “she,” comes to conclude that she hates Guy, an epiphany that is marked structurally by her finally leaving Yport after a ten-day stay to go back to Paris. But the story never actually makes it back to Paris; the farthest it gets is another town along the way before the story then rebuffs chronological order at the end to actually conclude with things that happened while the mother was still in Yport. This structural loop de loop might indicate that the mother has not entirely escaped the pull of patriarchal influence as thoroughly as her Guy-hating epiphany–which she seems to undergo more than once and seemed to already be tending toward near the beginning of the story when she first gets to Yport–might imply. Since the Guy-related epiphany is already in formation at the story’s beginning, the epiphany that seems to offer a climax to the rising action is a realization more related to her own self–not just that she hates Guy; rather, her musings on him, or more specifically, on his mother, who, like her, was the mother of two sons, lead her to conclude that she does not belong in France, but rather in Florida. While she came to France in the first place to try to escape the person she was in Florida, she realizes by the end that’s not possible. Arc complete.
Notably, the image “Yport” ends with is somewhat less hopeful than that at the end of the opener “Ghosts and Empties,” and seemingly more complex—the rock the son clutches over the snail seems an evocation of the human condition of impending mortality we all have to live with, while also calling to mind the potential of male cruelty and a mother’s role in it.
Groff excels at developing images that evoke a certain mood, in many cases dread, but in others hope, as with “Ghosts and Empties,” and also prominently on display in “Eyewall,” which describes in lurid detail a woman weathering a violent hurricane alone in her old house. The story begins “It began with the chickens.” Then the narrator explains that she tried to get the chickens inside before the storm but they refused, and eventually they drown under the house in the storm, during which she herself encounters phantoms from her past. At the very end, she opens her door “to look at the devastation outside”:
Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.
This image contains double threads of hope in both the egg and the dawn, and is of course a symmetrical tie-back to the story’s beginning.
“Yport” also plays with the technique of developing certain threads and images to propel the story to narrative closure. There is of course Guy, and then there is the only man who physically appears in the story, as she never manages to get in touch with her husband: Jean Paul, a figure who walks the line between threatening and pathetic, and who, at the end when he gives her his poem, turns out to be a writer too:
Another fucking writer, just what the world needs.
What she really seems to mean is, another fucking male writer (another Guy, or guy) is just what the world needs. Jean Paul becomes a physical manifestation of the Guy ever present in her mind, and it’s notable that as a physical presence, Jean Paul smells bad:
His odor shakes her hand before his hand does, some combination of unwashed clothes, body, salt, breath. He smells like a lifelong bachelor.
Then there is the odor of the house she’s renting from him:
There is a fatty, rotting smell that she recognizes from an apartment in Boston when she was young, a few weeks of low-level anguish after a rat died in the walls.
These smells, symbolic of the pervasive masculine presence surrounding her, are in large part what exacerbate her feeling of dread.
Then there are the seagulls, which she can see when she pokes her head out of her room’s skylight, and which initially make her feel something is wrong when they’re completely silent. They’re then developed further when they peck one of their own to death. This development, read through the gender-politics-of-literature lens, could be the female writer among men being picked apart: a minority and categorically physically weaker due to her nature (that is, her gender), she’s easily dispensed with. The last seagull tidbit we get is when one appears in her room in what she thinks is a dream before she encounters evidence, via the shit it left behind, that it was in fact there in reality. During this sequence, the symbolism is overtly linked to the theme of patriarchal literary influence:
She wonders if it is about to speak, because that’s what birds do in stories, and the language she is most fluent in is story. It would have a deep male voice. Even now, even after all she knows and has read, the default voice of stories is male. But the bird just stands there, mute.
This last tidbit here about the bird not revealing a male voice seems to offer some hope for transcendence of the male influence, but its muteness seems to indicate that that influence remains stifling.
An interesting aspect of the influence theme developed through the Guy thread is the mentor relationship Guy had with Flaubert, who is frequently credited as the founder of literary realism via his novel Madame Bovary, a man writing an elaborate portrait of a woman. Another interesting tidbit is the sexual assault that Guy committed, something you will not find on his Wikipedia page (Groff seems to poke fun at how much of our information comes from Wikipedia when Jean Paul, having heard she’s doing research on Guy, has printed out his Wikipedia page for her, a piece of paper that parallels the one he’ll hand her at the end with his own poem about her on it). This tidbit seems to connect the theme of patriarchal influence to the MeToo movement, raising the question of how that pervasive influence crosses the line into more violent exhibitions of power and dominance.
The gender politics of literature, who I was reading and why, is not something I considered for many years, but it was always present. I still vividly remember doing a presentation in college on a female writer’s short-story collection for a creative writing course, and my white male professor, whose tastes ran to Cheever and Chekhov, claiming that the writer must have had some sort of connection to get her book published, insinuating it lacked merit. Looking back, this assessment seems more the product of the inherent bias of misogyny than anything else, but it’s been a long journey to understanding that bias and the formative influence it’s had on me.