The character at the center of Lauren Groff’s new novel, The Vaster Wilds, is on the run, and though for a long time we’re not quite sure what from, you can at least measure the trauma by what she’s willing to endure to get away from it: fever, starvation, sleeplessness, nightmares of being sniffed and licked by wild beasts, and generally an unwelcome closeness with the outdoors. The unnamed girl runs and runs, occasionally looking behind her to double check, and forces from within herself the survival instincts that sustain her in the open space of the new world. The story that develops as we follow her movements away from Jamestown has been described elsewhere as a novel of survival or adventure, though the project at its heart is the disintegration of both. Over a series of harrowing episodes, we witness the slow emptying of an individual into the natural world, which at once gives her life and feeds off of her.
We recently asked the author to speak about the process of designing a book in which a human, out in the wild, does the normalest thing a human can do.
Sumanth Prabhaker: The most suspenseful relationship in this story is that of the girl and the land around her. At any given moment, she may presume to some intimacy with it, creating ingenious shelters or starting fires in the damp; or she may find herself being hunted by it; or she may simply be observing with innocuous charm or repulsion. But there’s a moment when, desperate to find out if she’s being pursued by men, the girl sniffs the air ‘as if it could tell her,’ and of course she detects nothing. You write: ‘The world, the girl knew, was worse than savage, the world was unmoved. It did not care, it could not care.’ Could you talk about the process of mapping out that relationship?
Lauren Groff: At the base of the story, even in its incredibly rudimentary earliest forms, there was always this push to slowly unveil the truth (one that we, in our hubris, tend to ignore) that humankind is a very short, bright thread in the enormous weave of the history of earthly life. It was urgent in this book to decenter human dominance and allow the rest of nature to take its proper place as equal to the human experience. As the girl in her flight goes deeper into her experience of being alone in the woods, as her body begins to suffer from the cold and exertion and hunger, the forest itself becomes a companion that allows her to see past the received ideas of civilization that had held her captive to that point, and in some ways becomes her solace.
One of the texts that I read while thinking through this book was Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” especially this part, which reverberates through my book: “In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period so ever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent Eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
SP: Between ‘the mist that swallowed her’ and the friend ‘washed off the face of [a] ship’ to become ‘food for the sharks and the fishes,’ there’s a clear association being formed that death is not an act of disappearance, but a submission to the appetites of the natural world. Have there been moments in your life when you witnessed that appetite? It’s so human to see one’s end as the end of everything, and takes so much recalibrating to see it instead as, say, a reallocation of molecular energy, and I wonder how (or if) that recalibrating has happened for you.
LG: Yes, I have had a moment when I was very close to death, when all it would have taken was a moment of submission, and all the life would have gone out of my body. I was vastly changed from that experience. I am personally agnostic, but that doesn’t mean that I am not in awe, every day, of the great and eternal mysteries. I’ve wrestled to try to come as close as I can to them. It seems to me that heaven, as understood by the large religions, is an intellectual impoverishment, a limited replication of life on the material plane, perhaps a solace but perhaps not ideal. Much closer to my idea of goodness is the idea that when we die our energy joins the larger forces, even in the tiniest of ways; we are all part of the enormity of the universe.
SP: If you’re tired of the comparisons to The Road, allow me to flatter you with another old man who came to mind, Samuel Beckett. We open with the girl on the run, with basically zero time afforded to recapping where she’s running from or what the concept of home might previously have meant to her, which to me is very Beckett — a permanent state of displacement. This one isn’t a question, I just wanted to say that. Or maybe the question is, what are some of the cultural works in which you imagine this book in conversation?
LG: I don’t know if you know this, but I love Samuel Beckett so much that I named my first son Beckett. And there was actually a Beckett play that I was obsessed with during the writing of this book: Happy Days, though I have no idea how that obsession shows up in these pages. Other cultural markers: Robinson Crusoe, My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Shakespeare’s plays (Shakespeare himself appears in the book, but you’ll have to squint to see him), The Road, A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, and a whole shelfful of survivalist texts.
SP: There’s a very book-of-Genesis moment about halfway through the book, when the girl begins to outgrow the initial tourism of her immersion in the natural world and finds a language for her surroundings that illuminates greater depths. ‘Naming, she understood, made things more visible.’ Names are such a thing in the book. Overwhelmingly we know her only as ‘the girl,’ and on the few occasions when another human refers to her, it’s by names which, in retrospect, she feels are temporary, or transactional, or unnecessarily cruel. Could you talk a little about names? In taking pleasure in the naming of other things but resisting such identification for herself, is the girl resisting against the idea that she’s defined by the terrible circumstances of her terrible life?
LG: I think the girl starts to understand the power-structures that lie behind naming. When we give a child a name, we are claiming that child as ours, we are claiming possession; when we give a person a nickname, we are subtly putting ourselves in a dominant position over them, or subverting the dominant position that they have over us. I think she wants to resist this, and to be free from this kind of power-play, and let herself find something for herself that is freer and closer to the way that she wants to live.
SP: Watching a bear entranced by the movement of water, the girl feels ‘a sense of wonder’ which provokes her to empathize with the bear, to feel for herself the awe that the bear is feeling. ‘If a bear could feel awe,’ she concludes, then ‘perhaps in the language of the bears there was a kind of gospel.’ This train of thought leads her to begin doubting the image of a human-shaped god, and to instead imagine a god who is only ever partially described by the limited perception of each individual creature. I’m not going to ask you if you’ve met god, but I am curious to know about the bears of your life. When have you been brought into that kind of out-of-body empathy?
LG: I have met god, but of course I think god exists in every human and animal and tree and body of water and ray of sun that falls on the planet, so it’s safe to say that everyone alive has also met god. You, too, have met god. I could talk about thousands of moments where the beasts of the world showed their wonder to me, but I’ll tell you about how, when I was in London on book tour last week, I observed a crow in a park. It was watching all of the people on their breaks eating lunch, and it figured out that one young woman was only going to eat half of her Pret-a-Manger sandwich. I watched the crow watch the girl put the food back in the box, then in the paper bag, and throw it away; then I watched the crow leap onto the rubbish bin, take the bag, shake the sandwich box out of it to the ground, figure out how to open the sandwich box, and eat the sandwich in a few delighted gulps. The crow looked so pleased with itself that I laughed, and it picked up its head, looked at me, and laughed back. How incredibly myopic humans are to think we are the only creatures who can feel and observe and question and puzzle and experience joy and awe.
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Lauren Groff is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, Fates and Furies, and Matrix, and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. She has won the Story Prize and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Groff ’s work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.