The Stormy State

“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.


“A Larger Reality”

Since its inception, the genre of science fiction has been a man’s world, but the most notable exception has been, of course, none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, whom we lost after her immensely prolific career at the beginning of this year. Le Guin received renewed attention for the speech she gave in 2014 when she accepted the National Book Foundation Medal at the National Book Awards ceremony, in which she emphasized the “need [for] writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

Le Guin’s arguably best known work is The Left Hand of Darkness, originally published in 1969. Offering a vision of a species of human that’s transcended gender, the work seems ahead of its time, especially relevant today amid our current state of gender politics and lacking governmental diplomacy. In keeping with Le Guin’s credo that we need writers who are “realists of a larger reality,” Le Guin structures the novel by alternating chapters tracking the ongoing acute tension thread of action with chapters that break from that action to offer other lore from that world that underscores the action thematically while also shedding light on the function of the narratives our culture tells itself, and how these narratives resonate through history. 

1 A Parade in Erhenrang
A visitor from Earth, Genly Ai, visits the nation Karhide on the planet Gethen/Winter. He witnesses a parade culminating in the keystone ceremony where the king, Argaven XV, mortars an archway with (animal) blood. Ai’s guide is the head of Karhide’s parliament, Estraven, who later that night invites Ai to dinner to tell him he can no longer be his patron and won’t be recommending to the king Ai’s mission to “bring about an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen,” since Gethen is at a turning point and Estraven’s found himself falling out of the king’s favor while others who maintain it, like the king’s cousin Tibe, are against Ai’s mission. Ai is mad at himself for being tricked by the self-serving politician. 

2 The Place Inside the Blizzard
A “hearth-tale” from during the reign of Argaven VIII about two brothers who “vowed kemmering” to each other for life even though they weren’t supposed to after one had a child. After the one who had a child committed suicide, the other was driven out as an outlaw and fled into a blizzard, and started to get frostbite until they entered a strange white land where they were healed and met their brother, who said they could stay there forever. But the first one didn’t want to and fled; he was found later after having lost his left hand to frostbite, and died shortly thereafter. 

3 The Mad King
Genly Ai goes to visit King Argaven XV, hearing a report while he’s waiting that Estraven’s been exiled for treason. Argaven tells Ai that he considers him a tool of Estraven’s, and wants to know why he wants Gethen to join the Ekumen’s alliance, which includes 83 worlds and 3000 countries. But Argaven is not swayed by Ai’s argument that the union will advance trade and knowledge, difficult to achieve between worlds so distant from one another. Ai shows him a machine capable of instantaneous communication with other worlds, but Argaven is unimpressed and believes he’s being tricked to be taken advantage of.

4 The Nineteenth Day
An old East Karhidish story about a lord who pays the Foretellers to ask when he will die, and he receives the answer that it will be on the 19th day of the month, but they don’t say what month or year. When a servant goes and asks the Foretellers how long his lord will live; they say longer than the servant. The lord, enraged the servant couldn’t get a better answer, kills the servant and then goes mad and eventually hangs himself on the 19th of the month.  

5 The Domestication of Hunch
Having failed in his mission, Ai heads east with a caravan to gather information from the Foretellers. After a mildly harrowing trip to an isolated outpost in the mountains, he meets the Foretellers and poses them his question: will Gethen be part of the Ekumenical alliance in five years? After a seeming channeling of their collective sexual energy (they’re supposed to be celibate), they answer a straightforward, yes. The Weaver Faxe expounds to Genly about the virtues of uncertainty. 

6 One Way into Orgoreyn
Estraven barely manages to leave Karhide and makes it to Orgoreyn before his three-day limit is up and he would be killed. He works in fisheries for awhile before he becomes secretary to a powerful official there, Yegey, and tells them that he thinks the king’s cousin Tibe has designs to manipulate Argaven and change the face of Karhide, starting with a border dispute over a valley. Estraven believes the only way they’ll be able to maintain their own sovereignty in Orgoreyn is talk to Genly about the Ekumenical alliance. 

7 The Question of Sex
Notes from the first Ekumenical landing on Gethen (forty years before Genly’s arrival) lay out how the sexuality of the androgynous humans on Gethen apparently works: they go through cycles of “somer” and “kemmer”; during the latter the attributes of one gender or the other is adopted and sex and conception will occur (the same individual might be different genders in different periods of kemmer). Vowing “kemmering” is the equivalent of marriage. The note-taker postulates that the lack of gender might be responsible for their lack of war, while conceding that the extreme cold climate might also be responsible. 

8 Another Way Into Orgoreyn
Eventually Genly returns to Karhide, where Tibe begins actively promoting war. A former kemmering of Estraven’s asks Genly to deliver some money to Estraven; Genly agrees and journeys to Orgoreyn, enduring a raid on a small town along the way. He again meets Estraven and delivers the money, suspicious that Estraven orchestrated his arrival. 

9 Estraven the Traitor
A recorded story about Estraven’s line before the reign of Argaven I, a time when Karhide was actually at war because of border disputes and one of Estraven’s ancestors, injured, ended up at the cabin of his enemy, but they discovered their hands were identical and vowed kemmering to each other. The next day more enemies showed up and recognized Estraven’s ancestor as the Lord’s heir and killed him, but later his newborn baby was brought to the Lord and named heir, and his brothers tried to kill him for this but he killed them and, injured, ended up back at the enemy’s cabin. They again recognized they had the same hands, and Estraven vowed peace and gave up half the disputed lands, and for this he was labeled a traitor. 

10 Conversations in Mishnory
Estraven warns Genly in vague terms not to be used by the same faction. Genly is warned there’s a Karhide spy present before he eats with the Orgota people and tells them about his mission, revealing info he didn’t in Karhide about how easily he can be picked up by an orbiting ship. He learns of the existence of SARF, Orgoreyn’s secret police. 

11 Soliloquies in Mishnory
Estraven muses about the politics behind Orgoreyn’s Commensal of Thirty-Three decision about what do about Genly the envoy; the secret police think he’s a Karhide agent and that the alliance he’s promoting is a hoax. The secret police also control all communication in Orgoreyn, unlike in Karhide, and so the public has no idea of Genly’s presence. Some members of the Commensals want him to bring his ship down as proof, but he won’t do so until they’ve announced his presence in a gesture of goodwill. Estraven warns Genly he needs to show his ship as proof before it’s too late.  

12 On Time and Darkness
A myth from North Orgoreyn’s “book of the Yomesh canon” about Meshe the seer who was born at the center of time and does not see darkness, which is part of the support used for the theory of the expanding universe.

13 Down on the Farm
Genly is arrested and taken on a harrowing truck ride with two dozen other prisoners to a “refectory.” He works in a sawmill and is given drugs like the rest of the prisoners to prevent them going into kemmering and other drugs that erase his memory before he’s interrogated; the drugs increasingly physically debilitate him until he can’t work anymore. He makes friends with another old infirm prisoner, Asra, who tells him some myths before he, Asra, dies. 

14 The Escape
Estraven, using forged papers, makes his way to the prison where Genly’s being held and poses as a guard, breaking Genly out and dragging his unconscious form out into the harsh winter forest. Genly eventually wakes and Estraven explains why he did it, because he thinks Genly ended up where he did because Estraven put too much trust in certain members of the Thirty-Three who he hoped would use him to make the alliance and gain power over Karhide, but who ended up selling him out to the SARF. Estraven tries to convince Genly that he’s been working to forge the alliance all along. 

15 To the Ice
They decide on a route back to Karhide that will avoid inspectors and be about 800 miles. Estraven steals provisions and they set off on snowshoes with a loaded sled weighing 300 pounds. Genly gets sick from some meat they eat but they keep going. 

16 Between Drumner and Dremegole
Entries from Estraven’s daily journal about the journey: they’re trying to pass by an erupting volcano, and to find an ascent that’s not too steep to get to the plateau on top of a glacier, which delays their trip because they have to keep moving west to find a way up when they’re trying to go north. They finally make it up. Things get a bit awkward when Estraven goes into kemmer, and they discuss the Terran species of women. They’re getting light on food. 

17 An Orgota Creation Myth
An Orgoreyn creation myth about how the sun melted the ice into “ice-shapes” that then created the rest of the world, including men, though the first man to wake (Edondurath) killed the rest except for one that escaped and eventually came back to mate with him when he was in kemmer to then create the rest of mankind.

18 On the Ice
Ai’s perspective as they continue the ice-trek, which is much colder now that they’re out of range of the volcanoes, making Genly vulnerable to frostbite, but they continue on. We revisit the kemmer conversation they had and Genly concludes they share a platonic love that they tacitly agreed sexual relations would have threatened, though he’s not sure if he’s right about this.  

19 Homecoming
We stay in Ai’s perspective as they continue; their progress is hindered when the snow stops and it becomes overcast, essentially blinding them when there are no shadows cast on the ground for them to detect changes in the terrain. After Estraven’s almost killed falling into a crevasse he decides to change their route, though it will take longer. They have to go several days without food but make it into Karhide and are provided food and shelter by villagers whom they don’t reveal their identity to. They have to go another 150 miles to get to a town with a big enough radio transmitter for Genly to call his ship. An old friend of Estraven’s gets him a false identity and a job so he can stay in Karhide. Genly gets to a transmitter station and sends a signal to his ship. When he returns, Estraven is fleeing because his friend betrayed him to Tibe. He’s shot at the border and dies in Genly’s arms. 

20 A Fool’s Errand
Genly is taken back to Erhenrang and received by the king, who will join the alliance. He’ll wait to revoke the order of exile against Estraven until after the ship arrives. The ship does arrive, and Genly is startled to see it’s now unfamiliar men and women. Months later, after they’re all exploring different parts of the planet, he goes to see Estraven’s father and meets his son to give them Estraven’s journals and tell them what happened. 

The End

The “larger reality” the book seems to reflect is that deception and mistrust in politics are universal–even when the nominal gender categories of “men” and “women” don’t exist. The chapter that explicates how kemmer works postulates that the differences in their sexuality might be responsible for their lack of war but then himself offers a supposition to counter this (it could be the cold weather). The fact that the very next chapter has the character of Tibe actively promoting war further underscores that this society’s sexual characteristics have not made them immune to this seemingly human problem. A later chapter (9) with a past story confirms that war has definitely existed on this planet. The SARF secret police also seem to be a parallel to our CIA, especially when a reference to “the farm” is included–though this is referring to a prison rather than a training facility.

Thus, it’s interesting to consider how much of a role in the plot the androgyny of the Gethenians actually plays. The most direct role it seems to play is when Genly is imprisoned and given drugs to prevent him from going in to kemmering that have adverse effects on him and debilitate him to the point where he’s utterly infirm. It seems Estraven still would have had to rescue him even if he hadn’t been unable to do anything. It also seems like the plot developments don’t occur because of the androgyny, but in spite of it; we do see how Genly’s lack of understanding of the culture impedes his ability to persuade them of the benign motives of his mission, raising the larger thematic question of how sex and gender impact our real-world politics. It’s also interesting that in spite of the Gethenians’ capability to be either gender, Estraven is referred to as “he.” 

The narrative model would seem to be a classic one: the protagonist, Genly Ai (pronounced “eye” or “I”), gets what he wants, but it comes at a cost–his friend’s life. The interesting narrative development within this model is that the person who becomes his friend and helps him with his mission is someone he originally considered an obstacle. 

One narrative tension the androgyny provides is the question of what exactly “kemmer” means; Le Guin offers us a myth in the second chapter of two brothers who have vowed kemmer to each other without giving us an explicit explanation of what this means, which she waits to reveal until a later chapter with a previous scout’s field notes.

One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.