Assent on the Intake

7 Aug

If you’re Norwegian or if you know someone who is, you might recognise this habit we have of answering a yes-no question while breathing in, a kind of gasp-like noise that many find strange. It recently came up in a conversation with a friend who have also lived abroad for a few years, and funnily enough, it is very appropriately described in a novel I was just then reading.

Astrid does her funny in-breath that means a yes. Assent on the intake, Hannah calls it.

Arcadia, novel by Lauren GroffLauren Groff’s novel Arcadia is about Bit, who grows up in the eponymous hippie commune in the 60-70’s and eventually has to face the world Outside where he remains into the present and beyond. Here, industry, exploitation of the world’s resources and global warming are having increasingly extreme effects on society, and no viable solutions are in sight.

Like the protagonist, this is a subtle, emotional, thoughtful and intelligent exploration of the conflict between assimilating into society and staying true to your beliefs. It shows the difficulty in sustaining a community where everyone’s welcome and anything goes, despite the fact that the core values and founding ideals (self-sufficiency, community, contribution, solidarity) are genuinely good. Eventually, problems with leadership, segregation, corruption and regulation, the very issues they are trying to avoid, will start to seep into the closed community.

As such, both Arcadia and the Outside are presented through their many flaws, especially when considering the different faiths of the many “kidlets” who were raised in Arcadia but only truly grow up once outside. When the two worlds intercept, a wide range of reactions take place for which both worlds are partly responsible. Additionally, the novel shifts between an exploration of the interchangeable influence the larger community and the closer bonds of family have on Bit.

Nevertheless, through the beautiful descriptions of his amazing childhood experiences and the struggles with finding his proper place outside, there is a sense that large-scale catastrophe could have been avoided had the basic principles of Arcadia (and pre-industrial revolution societies) continued to have a more central position in the world at large. By starting in an authentic past, progressing to the actual present and placing the final part of the novel in the immediate future, Groff simultaneously hints that even if we could change the ways of our society, we have already run out of time – a chilling notion that had this Norwegian gasping in assent.

Other similar novels (climate/resource/society-related dystopias):

  • The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker
  • The Swarm – Frank Schätzing
  • Mino-triologien (Mengele Zoo, Himmelblomsttreet, Afrodites basseng) and Chimera Gert Nygårdshaug
  • Freedom – Jonathan Frantzen (not a dystopia as such, but similar in themes and tone, and a personal favourite)

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