Stories of middle-class discontentment in lyrical prose

Lauren Groff's short story collection Florida is set in the American city, with its heat, humidity, wetlands terrain and untamed nature.
Lauren Groff's short story collection Florida is set in the American city, with its heat, humidity, wetlands terrain and untamed nature.PHOTOS: MEGAN BROWN, RIVERHEAD BOOKS

Under the surface beauty of words lies the broil and murk of discontent. The lyricism of American writer Lauren Groff's prose in this short story collection belies the hectoring voices of her protagonists - mostly wives and mothers burdened by their duties at home and at work - and the expectations set by society and self.

The collection is named after a place, Florida, an atmospheric setting with its heat, humidity, wetlands terrain and untamed nature - sinkholes, snakes and alligators.

Florida is presented as an inhospitable environment where middle-class folk have chosen to settle down with their families. These are tales of marital and professional disenchantment, niggling maternal fears and violence against women and children.

Accompanying the collection's sombre tone is a curious air of detachment and defeatism. In the stories told from the perspectives of anxious, fatigued mothers - Ghosts And Empties, Yport, Snake Stories and Flower Hunters - love seethes with worry and anger at global woes such as climate change and social injustice.

Is Florida a metaphor for mankind's ungainly ineptitude in relation to nature? This ugly anxiety rears its head over and over again in different stories.

In At The Round Earth's Imagined Corners, Jude sells off "precisely calibrated" parcels of his father's hundred acres of land "overgrown with palmettos and vines" to the university, whetting its "greed" and "gobble" for more air-conditioned space.

Groff condemns his capitalism: "Jude's promise was unfulfilled, the choices made not the passionate ones. Jude had been safe." Yet the character is a miraculous survivor of a childhood menaced by poisonous snakes in the living room and albino alligators in the bathroom, and the safety and security he builds for his family are precisely what he never enjoyed.



    By Lauren Groff

    Riverhead Books/Paperback/275 pages/$27.82/ Major bookstores

    Rating: 3.5/5

Two of the stories feel like novels in the making: Dogs Go Wolf and For The God Of Love, For The Love Of God. Groff has a talent for dramatising the ambivalent nature of human relationships, as love and affection are eaten away by doubt, secrecy and covert cruelty. Life is one menace after the next, inside and outside of the state shaped like a gun.

Intellectuals are especially susceptible. In Above And Below, a graduate degree in the humanities fails to provide a safety net from hunger and poverty. In Yport, a writer’s search for answers through research in French author Maupassant leads her to cheap wine rather than wisdom in a French tourist town.

If you like this, read: Bad Dreams And Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, 2017, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya) by Tessa Hadley, a collection of stories distinguished by attention to the tension between surface and inner realities, suspense, sharp social commentary and dry humour.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article wrongly referred to Maupassant as a town. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Stories of middle-class discontentment in lyrical prose'. Print Edition | Subscribe