Make it hurt so good

Julia Cook

October 01, 2015

If you’re looking for a book to uplift you, to temporarily alleviate the struggles of your daily life, keep looking. Fates and Furies is a novel of attrition; National Book Award nominee Lauren Groff tears away at her characters as her readers lose faith in them. This marathon of a novel leaves you wondering: was it really worth the pain?

Well, it depends on what you’re into. Born into wealth, Lotto must clear hurdles to impress his mother, a feat he never quite achieves. He spends the rest of his youth in various roles; from drug-addled Florida punk to New England noveau riche to reformed-playboy-husband at twenty-two. His act is convincing, but his gangly height and scarred face keep him off the professional stage. His young wife Mathilde can also work a crowd, and when Lotto morphs from actor to playwright, she tiptoes across the catwalk, pulling strings and shifting the spotlight. She calls on a sketchy network to drive his achievements, pushing Lotto to the forefront and keeping him focused.

Normally so connected with her characters, Groff here writes with a chilly, you-get-what-you-paid-for streak, introducing too many people in the first half. Lotto’s former dalliances, who remain attached to him for his purported mythic glow, predict (with uniformly wooden dialogue) that his marriage will fizzle. So much time is spent telling their stories, they become indistinguishable. These women (and men) won’t fade into obscurity — they’ll die graphic, dramatic deaths. And the affluent, especially the Southern affluent, will suffer continuous blows, though both groups are indelibly printed on Lotto, and inspire Groff’s lushest observations:

Lotto had once watched a sinkhole open suddenly and swallow the old family outhouse. Everywhere: sinkholes.

"He would be hurrying down the sandy lanes between the pecan trees and simultaneously feel terror that the ground would break beneath his feet and he’d go tumbling into the darkness, and that it would not. The old pleasures had been sapped of color. The sixteen foot alligator in the swamp he’d stolen whole frozen chickens from the freezer to feed was now just a lizard. The bottling plant just another big machine.”

Fates’ strongest moments arrive in stripped-down devices, like Groff’s bracketed narrator (a contemporary nod to Arthur Miller’s dramatized stage directions) and the plays-within-the-novel that begin to consume Lotto and narrate his own life. As certain details crawl to the forefront, half-truths mutate into whole truths or even outright lies. Readers must pace themselves, pay attention, and wait for the characters to contradict themselves, instead of being fooled by their perspective. Groff expects a lot of us.

In her earlier material, revelations felt more organic. The short story “Delicate Edible Birds,” appeared in Glimmer Train in 2009, and followed five journalists as they tried to escape Nazi-occupied Paris. With her lovely descriptions and emerging secrets, Groff created a sense of urgency, a hope for redemption. In 2011, “Above and Below” dealt with a down-on-her-luck graduate student who ends up homeless while her former friends succeed—reading it felt like someone stuck a boot in your stomach, and kept kicking. Though they dealt with two different kinds of pain, the progression in both stories made sense. They worked, whether or not her readers were into it.

In Groff’s bestselling novels, The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, she dealt in years, rather than days or weeks, focusing on people who live gloriously upended lives. Using the word “relatable” dulls the epic cadence of her writing, but between the loneliness, ambition, and questionable choices of her characters, it's difficult to miss one's own experience. Groff finds epic in the mundane — she’s what you'd get if Carver or Yates tried to write a fairy tale.

The problem with Fates and Furies is that Groff takes the deft revelations of her short stories and tries to make them last two lifetimes. There’s so many twists in 390 pages it feels less like a novel, more like an episode of Scandal. But some people — a lot of people — are into that.

And Groff’s anti-heroine Mathilde “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, like a bomb going off.” Fates and Furies is the kind of book she yearns for: both explosion and fallout, its protagonists can only build a monument to the past. Longtime fans will notice all Groff’s favorite tricks, though she leaves a few devices dangling. Perhaps in that respect, Fates and Furies does what it sets out to do—imitate life. And as Mathilde herself reflects, life has no tidy endings.

Books in this review:
  • Fates and Furies
    by Lauren Groff
    Riverhead Books
    September 14, 2015
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Peddles pages for Seattle Weekly. Clandestine Cuddler of Community Cats.

Follow Julia Cook on Twitter: @KOCooked

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