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The Small, the Daily, and the Universal: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies

By Mark West.

Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (Riverhead / Penguin Books, 2015)

Speaking in August at the Edinburgh Book Festival about her novel How to be both, Ali Smith said she preferred writing two time periods as separate halves (rather than interweaving them) as it better allowed her to show each period’s character. Going back and forth between them, she suggested, over-emphasizes their similarities and diminishes their differences. I was reminded of this when reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which is divided into the two halves that give the novel its title, halves which are dissimilar from one another even as they recount much of the same story. Whereas Smith’s novel depicts two temporal periods 400 years apart, Groff depicts pretty much the same time period – and many of the same events – from the perspectives of two different characters.

The first half belongs to Lancelot (“Lotto”) Satterwhite, the second to his wife Mathilde, and together they tell the story of their marriage. The two meet at the closing night party for a student performance of Hamlet in which Lotto has triumphed in the title role, and then marry a mere two weeks after; they stay together until Lotto dies suddenly of an aneurysm twenty-five years later. Lotto first seeks a career as an actor, while Mathilde supports them by working at a gallery. Her resentment at her husband’s failure to realize his lack of talent is reaching its pitch when, just in time, he discovers that his greater gift is writing plays. He becomes a world-renowned playwright; she, his assistant and muse. In Mathilde’s version, however, we discover that she is also a supreme ghostwriter who edits, shapes, and tidies her husband’s work when he is asleep. She does this to such an extent that the plays appear collaborations between the two of them, and the novel suggests that it is Mathilde’s pruning which makes the plays such triumphant successes. We also find out that she uses moneyed connections to jumpstart Lotto’s career. Most dramatically, we learn that Mathilde was born in France (where she was named Aurélie) and was sent to America at the age of four after her baby brother died. In America, living with a disinterested yet domineering uncle until she reaches adulthood, Mathilde finally escapes by becoming the mistress of an older gallery owner. Lotto never learns of the life his wife led before she met him.

Though the book has been talked about as the story of a marriage over a period of twenty-five years, Fates and Furies is also a portrait of a group of friends. In this respect, it bears similarities with other recent novels that chart the travails of a group over a long period of time, such as The Interestings (2013) by Meg Wolitzer (who provides a blurb for Fates and Furies) and Groff’s fellow 2015 National Book Award nominee Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Groff’s novel also recalls an older, now classic novel about a group of friends, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). Fates and Furies is particularly indebted to Woolf in its allusions to forces beyond the merely human. The openings of both novels, for instance, contain near-mythical descriptions of nature. Here is Woolf:

“The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”

And here is Groff:

“A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their tuning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray. Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it.”

This more metaphysical approach to her characters has an effect on the way Groff deals with time. For much of Fates and Furies, its temporal setting is not revealed in any overt way. There are eventually some minor, passing references to 1990s fashions which roughly establish the book’s timeline, but they are vague enough for it to be clear that tying her novel to world historical events is not one of Groff’s main concerns. There are none of the references to Reagan, 9/11, and the 2008 stock market crash that linked the events of her last novel, 2012’s Arcadia, to American cultural history. While she is interested in the particularity of Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship, as well as that of their group of friends, Groff also wants to get at the universality of human relationships, those parts that make the book’s numerous references to Greek mythology seem uncannily like descriptions of our own lives. Such a desire is evident in sentences like the following: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Not a paradox of this particular marriage, but of all marriages.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in a book called Fates and Furies, Groff makes use of a chorus – which appears in square brackets offset from the main narrative – to voice the powers that exist beyond and which surpass human individuality. While the two halves of the novel describe events from either Lotto’s or Mathilde’s points of view, the chorus is always on hand to corroborate or discredit the characters’ perceptions. At times this is comical, as when Lotto muses whether his “greatest gifts were the ones he employed in bed,” to which the chorus responds “Delusion!” But the chorus is other things, too: descriptive, summative, elaborative. The chorus also fills in memory blanks, such as when it provides Lotto with the forgotten name of the girl he first slept with, who is also his oldest friend’s sister. The chorus sets the record straight, and in doing so, it hints at a truth higher than the fallible individual impressions its interjections correct.

But there are also times when the chorus reflects on the ways individuals narrate their lives. Lotto and Mathilde’s first meeting is described at one point as involving a “fatal look up,” the type of description only possible in retrospect, when we understand the consequences of a particular moment. And this is how we come to see our lives: “if only I hadn’t looked up at that moment, things would have been different.” Thinking about fate always leads to counterfactuals. What would have happened if Lotto hadn’t looked up at that particular moment? Were there once other paths? Yet Fates and Furies seems to dismiss these possibilities at times. On a few occasions, the narrative voice jumps out of focusing on Lotto or Mathilde, moves away from the chorus, and then quickly shifts to another person’s perspective. One winter in their youth, in their basement flat, Lotto and Mathilde hold a Christmas party. As the group fall into drunken revelry, the point of view changes to a passerby on the street, looking down through Lotto and Mathilde’s window:

“His heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him … It remained long after his children ripped open their gifts and abandoned their toys in puddles of paper and grew too old for them and left their house and parents and childhoods, so that he and his wife gaped at each other in bewilderment as to how it happened so terribly swiftly.”

Here, prolepsis, with its knowledge of the future, is tied to fate.

And it is in moments like these that the novel’s structure can be viewed as balancing directly on the demarcating line between the particular and the universal. Of course, the question of depicting both of these simultaneously is the question facing anyone intent on representing individuals’ experiences of time in fiction, but Groff has shown a particular interest in this concern in each of her novels to date. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton (2008), used the family as a structuring mechanism for time’s passing, and featured family members’ personal diaries, photographic portraits, and even a family tree. Arcadia makes use of the utopianism of the inhabitants of a commune as a way to explore how origin myths and stories of community are fostered.

All three of her novels, then, depict quite explicitly the search for a way of understanding and conceptualizing the passage of time. This made me wonder whether we are still searching for replacements for Jean-François Lyotard’s “metanarratives,” lost so long ago that the narrative of that loss has itself taken on grand proportions. Is this what Groff’s work – and maybe this collection of recent “group of friends” novels – is after? While writers are always searching for new ways of portraying human experience, writers like Groff, Wolitzer, and Yanagihara seem particularly interested in how to structure temporal experience, spurred on by a conviction that, as one of Groff’s characters puts it, “time was not behaving the way he had come to expect.” Lyotard’s work implies not just a loss of the governing structures that shaped our lives, but the emergence of new temporal experiences associated particularly with technology. Jacques Derrida writes about this too, when he blamed “archive fever” on email.

One of the ways a writer can structure a novel about our experience of time is to organize a narrative around a group of friends or a family. In addition to the novels already mentioned, we could discuss Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (2013) in this way. The former might get its name from a vast street that begins in Oakland and ends in Berkeley, California, but its portrayal of that street comes through the story of two entwined families between the seventies and the present day. Lethem’s novel might appear to be concerned with “the American century” in its broadest sense – with the vacillations of political interest and power, with the story of American prosperity and decline – but it is first and foremost, as the novel’s jacket copy puts it, a “family saga.” In both of these novels, as in Groff’s, events in the timeline of marriages and families structure the narrative, and it is through these relationships that we learn about the wider world. In this respect they resemble that strand of American writing epitomized by Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, and Jonathan Franzen; if these writers tell national stories, they do so through the prism of the small group or family.

While Fates and Furies is in many ways similar to these writers’ work, it is also quite different from it, and indeed from Groff’s other novels, in its more radical dismissal of the national in favor of things both larger (e.g., fate, the universal) and smaller (e.g., a couple’s marriage). We get a sense of Groff’s priorities in an examination of what she does with Lotto’s backstory. Early in the novel, explaining Lotto’s privileged upbringing, Groff tells us the rags-to-riches tale of how his family came into their fortune. Set in Florida rather than California, and involving a natural water spring rather than an oil well, Lotto‘s father’s story nevertheless has the familiar narrative shape of prospecting, discovery and self-made wealth. Whereas some novelists might be tempted to use such a backstory to infuse their narrative with national myth (something she herself does in Arcadia), Groff is more concerned with using it to establish a subplot in which Lotto is disinherited by his mother Antoinette, who despises Mathilde. Here Groff shows us the reverse of a moment in Arcadia, when children’s rebellion is described as “the ancient story” of generational strife. At this point in Fates and Furies, it is not the children that reject their parents, but vice versa. Antoinette regularly sends Mathilde nasty little notes telling her how much she hates her, and in digging into her past discovers what Mathilde keeps hidden from Lotto. In other words, everything is focused on relationships which are both particular and archetypal.

There are two moments in the last hundred pages of Fates and Furies that are hard not to read as reflections on the novel itself. The first comes when Mathilde has an unexpectedly friendly encounter at a party with a critic named Phoebe Delmar who has criticized Lotto’s work from the start. Pushed by Mathilde to explain why she hates his work so much, Phoebe says that he suffers from “Great American Artistitis,” which leads him to write a “war play … because works about war always trump works about emotions, even if the smaller, more domestic plays are better written, smarter, more interesting.” While “the war stories are the ones that get the prizes,” Lotto’s “voice is strongest when he speaks most quietly and clearly.” This might be especially ironic given Fates and Furies’ presence on the National Book Award longlist, but it encapsulates Groff’s approach in the novel.

The second moment shows what is gained by focusing on the small and the domestic. On the penultimate page of the novel, Mathilde looks back on her years and realizes that “more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life.” For Groff, “the small and the daily” get at something universal about human existence, much more than war stories or novels of national politics do. After all, those powers beyond the human we sometimes assign to fate are always finally concerned with human emotions and behaviors: love, jealousy and hatred, secrets, flaws, disappointments, regrets. For Groff, it is not that there’s a clearly delineated line between the universal and the particular, but rather that they are nested like Russian dolls: every story of the particular is also an iteration of the universal.



Mark West is an academic and critic. He researches the 1960s in contemporary American fiction, and teaches at the University of Glasgow. He is a founding editor of the Glasgow Review of Books. He has written for Gutter: The Magazine of New Scottish Writing, The List, and TheState, and contributes to Straight off the Beach.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 23rd, 2015.