Groff and the Radical Act of Paying Attention

From Public Books:

She doesn’t have a name when we meet her, though she’s been given many over the years: Lamentations, assigned to her as a foundling, a name of profound grief and mourning if also poetry; Zed, formerly the name of her mistress’s pet monkey, “the least and the littlest and the last to be counted like the strangest of all the letters of the alphabet”; “murderess,” perhaps a fair description of her legal status, if not her spiritual one. But “Girl” is what she calls herself, as she urges her starving body and exhausted legs and indefatigable spirit deeper into the wilderness.

The girl—the runaway protagonist of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wildshas spent her life being shunted from one institution to the next: first, an orphanage; then servitude; then brought to the Jamestown Colony by her mistress without consent. Fleeing the starving, diseased encampment, she sloughs off these past names and identities and “dwindle[s] the self she had once known down to nothing.” But with this evacuation of the self into nothing comes great knowledge and insight. For “a nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past,” and, what’s more, “a nothing could be free.” Releasing the girl from the oppressive structures in which she had been enclosed, The Vaster Wilds is equally interested in exploring a spirituality unfettered by patriarchy, a god not reduced to that of a specific religious text or rite but as expansive as the cosmos. Hierarchies thus reordered, the girl finds herself in holy communion with nature.

In The Vaster Wilds, a servant girl escapes the Jamestown Colony in 1609, and attempts to survive in the wilderness. She escapes during the winter known as the Starving Time, though as the novel progresses, we learn that the famine is only one type of suffering motivating her flight. It is a tale reminiscent of early American writing: captivity narratives and survival stories, peppered with the brimstone of Puritan sermons. Yet, in The Vaster Wilds, Groff sought to “transform the stereotypically combative and masculine relationship” between man and nature—the conflict that structures tales of survival—“into something feminine, more profound and subtle.”1

It seems a great risk for a writer to compose a novel around a character who so persistently thinks herself “a nothing,” whose thoughts are focused so intently on daily survival and bodily needs. For a writer less skilled than Groff, a novel like The Vaster Wilds could easily read as a slog. Days and nights of endless running and cold bleed together, and the mending of boots is hardly scintillating material. The Vaster Wilds follows the girl closely in a tight third person, taking only occasional detours as she encounters (rare) others on her journey, slowly unspooling the girl’s history to explain how she has been brought to Jamestown, and why she is so desperate to escape from it. When the girl’s attention flags, she strays from her path, losing days to wandering in circles, finding herself far from her intended course. The lesson for the reader is clear: slow down, pay attention, look closely. Meandering sentences turn on unexpected verbs, as when the girl comes upon a natural hot spring; crystalline images emerging from the bleakest of settings, as when she finds fish frozen in a shallow pond.

To sustain such a taut narrative requires a different sort of skill than subsisting in the wilderness, but Groff exercises the same discipline and force of will as her protagonist. And—just as the novel, in its shocking final sentence, turns to address the present-tense reader directly—so too are we invited to exercise Groff’s, and the girl’s, discipline ourselves.

Link to the rest at Public Books

2 thoughts on “Groff and the Radical Act of Paying Attention”

  1. I suspect you’re correct, K.

    Jamestown was in a very dodgy place for several years following 1607 and the only help anyone who left the settlement could have had was to be accepted into a local Native American tribe. Not necessarily a “feminine” or “subtle” experience.

  2. I don’t plan to read it, but from the description I will place my bets now that there are problems with New World wilderness winter survival for an inexperienced person on her own that are somehow magically not fatal, and I’m already skeptical.

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