What Good Writing Looks Like: “Eyewall,” from Lauren Groff’s FLORIDA

This piece is more analysis than review. The writer assumes that the reader has read the story, which you can find here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/lauren-groff-florida.html

The short story “Eyewall” provides a good introduction to Lauren Groff’s Florida. Like many in this collection, it presents a character in danger, in this case an unnamed woman intent on riding out a hurricane with her own private party. As the storm rages and the bottle count rises, she will encounter the significant men from her life who show up as ghosts or alcohol-inspired dream figures. She takes stock of the past, of how her men fell short and left her short of her life aspirations, allowing her a hard, inebriated look at the present and the possibility of future fulfillment.

Groff uses religious imagery[1] early, putting what presents as a survival story onto a larger stage:

[The chickens] huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing . . . I felt [their] fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers [bold mine].

All the other creatures of the earth flattened themselves, dug in.

[The first gust] shivered my lawn, my garden, sent the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.] (“Unplucked,” the kind of slant word choice Groff makes throughout her collection, connects one nature image to another: chickens and zucchini.)

A neighbor evacuating with his dog yells a warning from his truck, and she responds, “I raised two fingers and calmly gave him a pope’s blessing.” The pope image repeats the sense of authority the narrator strives for in taking on the danger: “I stood in my window watching, a captain at the wheel.” In contrast to the fearful chickens who refuse her offer to come inside to safety, she’s an assertive Noah. “Bring it on!” she shouts. “Or, just maybe, this is another thing in my absurd life that I whispered.” This back-and-forth between bravery and hesitation will be repeated in memories recollected with her ghost men. We see her youthful hesitation through the eyes of the older, more assertive woman counting the costs of those years, coming into wisdom. The electricity goes out, stopping the clocks. “Time erased itself.” An apt expression for her life-pause or fucked-up retreat. A clock and its ticking eventually takes on a more figurative meaning.            

We’re told that her fleeing neighbor will be killed after “lovingly kiss[ing] the concrete riser of an overpass” while driving one hundred miles an hour. This love-and-death image shows the extreme circumstances provoked by the storm (the road “a mile-long flesh-and-metal sandwich”), underscoring the danger the narrator faces. More importantly, though, the flash forward conveys that she will live to tell the tale. Although this lessens suspense, it directs attention from that hard-to-ignore cyclone outside to what’s going on inside, both house and resident.

A personified house and a connection with a particular chicken blends the narrator with her surroundings, befitting the cramped, symbolic Ark where the fate of earth’s creatures, human and animal, are tied. “The house sucked in a shuddery breath, and the plywood groaned as the windows drew inward . . . My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.”

She seemingly reverts to childhood as she sings songs whose lyrics she doesn’t understand, including the Hungarian lullaby her father sang to her as she struggled to sleep. She’d outlast him and watch him, a handsome man, dreams moving behind his eyelids. The next day, exhausted, she’d endure school’s “killing hours” by drawing houses, unable to follow the teacher drone on about English or math. She wants only to go home, a place she associates with safety and father. Her current house, with its groaning plywood and windows drawing inward, falls short in the safety category, as the men will fall short of her father, who seems to have influenced her choice of first husband. 

When he appears, we learn that he’d been a poet thirty years her senior who’d left her for a woman so young that she was probably underage. “He hadn’t wanted children until he ended up fucking one.” Her first impression of him at a reading is brushed with sexual, procreative imagery: “I sat spellbound at a reading my friend had dragged me to, his words softening the ground of me, so that when he looked up, those brown eyes could tunnel all the way through.” In the present, she’s drinking wine that had belonged to him. “It had been left in a special cooler in the butler’s pantry that had been designed to replicate precisely the earthy damp of the caves under the Bourgogne. One bottle cost a year of retirement, or an hour squinting down the barrel of a hurricane.” The description reflects the lofty, cultured life of the older academic, contrasted to her present.[2] His first words to her now repeat the sentiments of the ill-fated neighbor: “You’re still here, of course. Even though they told you to get out days ago . . . You never listen to anyone.”  

 He had named her his literary executor before he died, before he could change it, and before his poems began to “go vague” for her, and her opinion about their quality had changed. In their parley, the knowledge difference – she misses both the language and, evidently, the Poe reference — recall those English lessons she tuned out as a child. But we also see her pushing back, trying to hold up her end:

                        I’m letting it languish, I said.

                        Ah, he said, La belle dame sans merci.

                        I don’t speak Italian, I said.

                        French, he said.

                        Oh dear, I said. My ignorance must have been so maddening. 

                        Honey, he said, you don’t know the half of it.

                        Well, I said. I do know my half. 

She follows this show of assertiveness by expressing regret over having held back with him in an important way: “I didn’t say, I had never said: Lord, how I longed for a version of you I could hold, entire, in my arms.” The phrasing and the use of “Lord” repeats the earlier prayer simile with the chickens hiding under the house. At one level his growing vague and her inability to hold him could suggest his fickle nature. More importantly, the passage communicates the desire she’d had to bear his child, a version of him she could have held entire in her arms.

Her sense of diminishing chances of having a child are conveyed obliquely through the doomed, lizard-eyed laying hen that she identifies with. It’s also communicated in her exchange with her next ghost lover, her college boyfriend whose bipolarity or OCD/impulsive behavior ultimately rendered him unreliable. She recalls their last month together in Spain, which she paid for by selling one of her ovaries. His first impression of her now is communicated via T.S.Eliot reference: “You’re old! You’re old! You should wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled.” Her age and that lost ovary suggest her lessened child-bearing potential – will that clock start ticking again? – even as the two reminisce about names they’d made up for ones they hoped to have. (One, Cleanth, HAS to have been inspired by literary critic Cleanth Brooks.) His “happiness” or mania scared her away. The rumor of his subsequent suicide is confirmed by the “wet rose blossoming above his ear.” As with her husband, she’d held back. “My God, I loved you, I said. I had played it close to my chest then; I had thought not telling him was the source of my power over him.”

As in other Groff’s stories, the external at times echoes the internal. While she’s on her bender inside, the narrator refers to the storm as “the bender outside.” A baby reference – a “fucking kicker” – expresses her surprise at what the storm has left her, rendered in the story’s last sentence: “. . . balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.” That unexpected “skin”[3] again merges animal and human. The egg suggests there’s still hope. Maybe, like the wine her dead husband left her, she’s at her peak. 

[1] Fitting for the book’s Southern setting, religious imagery permeates the book. Story titles include “Above and Below,“ “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” and “Snake Stories” with its suggestion of an Edenic serpent and evil.

[2] I can’t help reading into this story details conveyed in other stories. In more than one, the narrator’s a wandering vagrant, homeless on the outskirts of or fleeing a university town, though still drawing from it. Here there’s a sense that her husband’s life represented something she aspired to herself, though she continually questions or rebels against a sterile, less earthy or earthbound life of the mind. Perhaps one too closely aligned with the men who ultimately disappointed her. In the collection’s last story, “Yport,” the various dichotomies (academy and dropouts, intellectuals and uneducated, humans and more low-lying creatures (both dangerous), adults/children, parents/offspring) are represented as France and Florida. A trip to the former ultimately disabuses her of lofty illusions. At her most basic, she’s a Floridian.

[3] This reversal of human and animal, “skin” instead of “shell,” recalls the last word of “The Midnight Zone” where the narrator uses “pelt” when referring to her own skin. “Pelt” references the Florida panther running loose in her environs.